The shame in some laws is they have to exist at all. Should adults have to be told, for example, that it's wrong to leave small children unattended in parked cars?
When I was writing the daily metro column for the Lansing State Journal, I got a call one day from an overwrought woman who said something like, "Did you know it's perfectly OK for people to leave small children alone in cars?"
What she meant, of course, was perfectly legal. No sane person – least of all the caller – would argue that it's OK.
The woman told me her story: She had been shopping at the Eastwood Towne Center Wal-Mart, near Lansing. Returning, to her car, she heard sounds of distress coming from a sun-baked car parked a few spots from hers. Upon investigation, she discovered three small children in the back seat of the car with no adult in sight. She attempted to soothe the kids through a rear window that had been left open an inch or two – presumably so they could breathe.
Time passed. No adult showed up. The woman went back into the store and explained the situation to a manager. He grabbed a bottle of cold water and returned with the woman to the car. About the time the manager was considering calling the police, the mother of the children emerged from the store and told the woman and the manager to mind their own business.
I did a little investigating, and learned that the woman who called me was right. The mother would have been in violation of the law only if her actions were proven to constitute abuse or neglect – a squishy standard, at best.
I wrote a column about the incident which caught the attention of former state Rep. Mark Meadows of East Lansing. Meadow introduced a bill that became law April 1, 2009. Michigan's so-called "Kids in Cars" law spells out what should be obvious to anyone responsible for the well-being of a child.
Admittedly, the law, like the definition of child neglect/abuse, is a little hazy. It prohibits leaving a child under 6 unattended in a vehicle "for a period of time that poses an unreasonable risk of harm or injury ..."
Prosecutors and judges are left to decide what's "unreasonable." But if a violation results in physical harm, or death, to a child, the potential penalties go up to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Unreasonable? The folks at KidsAndCars.org, a national nonprofit child-safety organization dedicated to preventing tragic outcomes for kids in cars, urge prosecutors and judge to keep in mind that a small child's body temperature climbs three to five times faster than an adult's – especially in a hot car.
The temperature inside a car can rise 35 degrees in less than 30 minutes; an infant can die in as little as 15 minutes, even on a 75-degree day.
I thought of all this as I followed news reports surrounding the horror of Steven Lillie, the Cocoa, Fla. man who left his 9-month-old daughter in his truck while he went to work. The child was dead when Lillie returned to his truck at the end of the day. He's been charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child, and is due back in court July 29.
A jury will have to decide whether the death resulted from a disastrous oversight, as Lillie claims, or something else. In any case, no law could have averted the tragedy, and no law can infuse parents with the instinct that comes so naturally to all living things - to protect their young.
Understanding this, KidsAndCars takes a practical approach – offering tips on how parents can remind themselves that they have fragile, defenseless human beings strapped into the back seats of their cars – things like, put something you need, like your cell phone, or purses, in the back seat. Because the parent actually needs the phone, he, or she will be forced to look in the back seat, and say, "Oh yeah …there's a baby back here."
Are we distracted these days, or what?