A law for what should go without saying: Don’t leave kids in cars

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?

Has this story impacted or informed you about Michigan? Please support our work.

No other news outlet is dedicated to providing the same level of in-depth, data-driven coverage of Michigan’s issues as Bridge Magazine. Any donation between now and December 31, will be matched dollar-for-dollar, thanks to our generous partners. Become a Bridge Club member and help our reporters get the resources they need to ramp up coverage during a critical election year. Join the Bridge team today.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments

Duane
Fri, 07/18/2014 - 5:28pm
I wonder what the purpose of a law about leaving kids in a car unattended is. If it is to inform parents or other adults about there responsiblities to protect small children, I wonder how many parents will read about such a law let alone read the actual law. If they don;t read the law how will they know to obey it? If it is provide a tool from procecuting parents that have lost a child to such an action so they won't do it again, I am not sure they law will have a greater impact than their loss. If the purpose of the law were to prevent injruies to fatalies of small children in such situations then it would seem a law that allowed/protectected people who intervened would be more effective. A law that would allow or encourage a passer by seeing a child in such a situation to enter (using necessary/appropirate actions) the vehicle and remove the child. A law that encouraged owners of parking facilities develop programs that watch for such situations and support taking actions. A law that would encourage the use of device that would address the reasons children are put in those situations, recognizing that sometimes it is do consciously. I would think the first step would be to identify the specific situations to be addressed, the causes of such situation, and then develop the means to address those causes. Simply writing a law doesn't necessarily mean anyhting changes, other then people can claim their 'good intentions'. I wonder if any of the authors of such laws would consider comparing the number of such situations happening before and after their law would be passed to determine if it was effective.
***
Sat, 07/19/2014 - 9:21am
People who do this I think I primarily thinking of the "convenience" factor, their convenience that is in that they don't want the hassle of dragging the kids along on whatever errand they are running so they think it is ok "since I will only be gone a minute or so". Sometimes their "minute" can end up being longer than what they expected. I see it all the time with people going into a convenience store to buy something and leave the kids in the car.
Rick Haglund
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 9:53am
Some of the experts in this area have pointed out that because the law requires infants to be buckled up in the back seat in rear-facing car seats, it's easier for harried parents to forget they have a baby in the car. The KidsAndCars folks also recommend keeping the diaper bag on the front passenger seat as a reminder.
John Schneider
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 11:56am
I still don't understand how people can forget, Rick, but maybe I'm underestimating the level of distractedness these days.
Matt
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 12:23pm
Are parents who do this not already subject to prosecution? Manslaughter, negligent homicide, assault etc? Not to condone this or any other like behavior but isn't this another case of believing another law is the answer? Wouldn't widespread publicity of prosecution of a parent or guardian committing such negligence accomplish the same? I've seen parents leaving toddlers unattended by water ending up drowning and we never hear a thing. We will run out of trees and ink before we get to the end of human stupidity, if we’re trying to solve this with more laws.
John Schneider
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 2:09pm
Matt: Previously it was a criminal act only if the child suffered harm or injury as a result of being left in alone in a car.
Matt
Mon, 07/21/2014 - 8:04am
But the harm is the point. As a kid we (three of us)commonly waited in the car while mom ran in the store and grabbed something. We weren't the only ones. The windows were down the doors unlocked, it wasn't 100 degrees and we weren't 3 mos old. I don't see it as child abuse. Such laws just try to circumvent common sense.
Matt
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 12:23pm
Are parents who do this not already subject to prosecution? Manslaughter, negligent homicide, assault etc? Not to condone this or any other like behavior but isn't this another case of believing another law is the answer? Wouldn't widespread publicity of prosecution of a parent or guardian committing such negligence accomplish the same? I've seen parents leaving toddlers unattended by water ending up drowning and we never hear a thing. We will run out of trees and ink before we get to the end of human stupidity, if we’re trying to solve this with more laws.
Ann Erickson Gault
Sun, 07/20/2014 - 2:04pm
The basic premise of this article is false. There is already a criminal statute addressing unattended children in vehicles: 750.135a Leaving child unattended in vehicle; prohibition; violation; definitions. (1) A person who is responsible for the care or welfare of a child shall not leave that child unattended in a vehicle for a period of time that poses an unreasonable risk of harm or injury to the child or under circumstances that pose an unreasonable risk of harm or injury to the child.
John Schneider
Mon, 07/21/2014 - 2:58pm
Yes, Anne - that's the law to which i refer in the column. I guess you missed that.