Hot Debate: Is It Ever OK to Leave Your Child in the Car?

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Even though Brooks left her son alone in the car only for a few minutes on a cool day in March, not for hours on a hot summer day, there are some who believe what she did should be illegal.

Sue Auriemma is the vice president of KidsandCars.org, an organization that raises awareness about public safety issues surrounding children and vehicles. She believes that there is never a situation where it's safe to leave a child alone in a car.

“A car is not a babysitter,” Auriemma said. “People have said to me, ‘for just a short period of time. It’s just a few minutes. It’s OK.’ To me, that’s akin to saying you need to go far away from your home before you get into a car accident so within a mile of your house you don’t need your seat belt. It can happen in an instant.”

A car can pose “many other dangers,” Auriemma said, not just heatstroke on a hot day, but also seat belt strangulation and injury with automatic seat adjustment settings, which move seats up and down or backwards and can crush or trap a child.

“The child is unsupervised and it doesn’t take a long time for something bad to happen to a child,” she said. “Several states have introduced Good Samaritan laws... that would allow someone to break a window if they see a child that they believe is in danger without facing legal implications.”

But Lenore Skenazy, the founder of Free Range Kids, which aims to teach parents not to be overprotective, believes that the “baby in hot car” debate is too narrow-minded, and while parents should never leave children alone for hours, a few minutes in the car is “not a dangerous situation.”

“There’s no reason to criminalize the parents who let their kids wait in the car for a short while, while getting the pizza, or picking up some stamps,” Skenazy said. “[Heatstroke in a car] certainly is a horrific way to die. So is a car crash, so is falling down the stairs. For some reason, we’re just focusing on this very rare, awful way to die.”

In looking at child auto deaths overall, Skenazy said children dying in parked cars is actually rare, and as many as 1,200 kids under age 14 die in car accidents while on the road each year. Skenazy believes that “society has become hysterical” about the kids in cars topic because it “sounds crazy."

“It is completely unrealistic to expect that every second of every day should not only be perfect, but should be optimal in the eyes of every onlooker,” Skenazy said. “The idea that if you let your kids wait in the car and something terrible happens, it’s because you were a bad parent. But if you take your kids out of the car, and you bring them in to pay your gas bill, and there’s a stick-up and the children are all murdered, that’s not a bad parent. Either way, we’re talking about something very rare and very random happening.”

As for Brooks, instead of risking a trial in juvenile court, where the court could rule to have her children taken away, she attended parenting education courses and complete 100 hours of community service. The prosecutor decided not to press charges.

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