Kids, Heat & Cars: A Fatal Mixture

Posted July 28, 2009 in Criminal Law by

Each summer, we’re inevitably hit with tragic stories about kids who were left in the heat of a locked vehicle, where they can quickly overheat and may even die. According to a San Francisco State University Department of Geosciences study, as of July 23, 2009, 22 children have died this year of hyperthermia after being left in cars, and since 1998, an average of 37 kids have died annually after being locked in hot vehicles.

In about 53 percent of the cases where the child died, SFSU reports that the caretaker accidentally left the child in the car. Thirty percent of the children who died were playing in an unattended vehicle. And 17 percent of the cases involved a caretaker who intentionally left the child in the car.

The stories are so sad not only because these deaths were preventable, but also because escaping a car is so easy for most of us, but almost impossible for young kids.

SFSU reports that 15 states have laws regarding unattended children left in vehicles. Those states are:

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Washington

In states where the laws don’t specifically address the issue, parents and caretakers can still face criminal charges. Charges, however, will vary depending on the jurisdiction and the specific circumstances of the situation. For example, a prosecutor might consider:

  • Was the child accidentally or deliberately left in the vehicle, or did the child get into the vehicle without the caretaker’s knowledge?
  • If the child was deliberately left in the vehicle, did the caretaker believe it was OK to do so?
  • How hot was it outside?
  • Have the caretakers previously been investigated for, or charged with, abuse or neglect?
  • Were there aggravating circumstances that contributed to the caretaker’s negligence, such as a medical condition, drug or alcohol abuse?

Among the possible charges are: manslaughter, misdemeanor child neglect and misdemeanor negligent homicide. A 2007 Associated Press study showed that charges were filed in 49 percent of all cases, and there were convictions or guilty pleas in 81 percent of the cases where charges were brought.

Don’t want your child (or pet) to become another statistic? Follow these recommendations:

  • Never leave children or pets unattended in a car, for whatever reason.
  • When parking your car, take the time to confirm that no one remains in it. Remember that kids can and do hide in cars. Even if you think you’re driving alone, double check before you leave your car.
  • Teach your kids not to play in or around the car. But also teach your kids how to safely escape from your cars and trunks if they accidentally become entrapped.
  • Lock your car, even when it’s parked at home or in your garage. Make sure that the keys and remote openers are out of reach of young children.
  • Develop a routine of putting something essential in the back seat, next to your children, whenever they are in the car. For example, place your briefcase, purse or house keys in the back seat.
  • Ask the school or day-care center to call you immediately if your child is not at school and the absence is unplanned.
  • If your car lacks a inside trunk-release mechanism, talk to your mechanic about having one installed.

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