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Experts say parents shouldn’t leave children in a car alone, no matter how short a period of time as vehicles can heat up quickly.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A woman here recently left her children alone in an SUV for a few minutes on a 20 C day and outraged bystanders surrounded her car until police arrived. This seems like a crazy overreaction – children who die in hot cars have usually been forgotten in there for hours. Should people be calling 911 while taking the law into their own hands like this when there's no actual danger? – Winnie, Vancouver

Whether or not parents catch heat for leaving their children alone in the car is for police to decide, but you should still call 911 and follow directions, they say.

"With respect to children left in a hot car, our messaging has been to call 911 and use the commonsense approach," Sergeant Jason Robillard, Vancouver police spokesman, said in an e-mail. "Every situation is different and there is no easy answer to how a citizen should respond and act."

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On July 3, several people called 911 to report two children left alone in an SUV in a Vancouver parking lot, police said. When a woman came to the vehicle and tried to drive away, bystanders surrounded it to keep her from leaving, a video showed.

"The people who called 911 did the right thing," said Amber Andreasen, director of Kids and Cars, a U.S.-based advocacy group. "We don't recommend that people confront the parent because it usually never ends well. Instead, we want people to follow the instructions of law enforcement."

Depending on a child's situation, those instructions could include safely breaking the glass to get the child out and taking him or her somewhere cool, Andreasen said.

In the United States, 19 states have laws against leaving children in cars, Andreassen said. In Canada, Quebec is the only province with a specific law banning children from being alone in cars – there, it's children younger than 7.

Everywhere in Canada, if a child is alone in a car and is injured or dies, the parents could face charges under the Criminal Code, including criminal negligence. Also, provincial child welfare laws usually apply.

'Why are you arguing?'

That same week as the Vancouver kerfuffle, two Edmonton women were charged, in separate incidents, with causing a child to be in need of intervention under Alberta's Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act after leaving children in their cars during errands. In both cases, the children weren't harmed.

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In the Vancouver case, a video shows an officer telling the woman that her children, 6 and 3 1/2, "could have died."

"Why are you arguing?" the officer said in the video, after the woman said it was just five minutes. "You want me to seize your kids and you'll never see them again?"

The woman wasn't charged, but police referred the case to British Columbia's Ministry of Children and Family Development.

It doesn't have to be 30 C outside for a vehicle to heat up quickly, even if the windows are down and it is parked in the shade, the Canada Safety Council says.

"It is never okay to leave a child in a vehicle not even for a minute," said Lewis Smith, manager of national projects with the Canada Safety Council, in an e-mail. "Even in the low teens, temperature in a car rises exponentially fast. … Being gone for only a few minutes is plenty of time for a car to heat up and for a child to get dehydrated and suffer from heat stroke or worse."

A large number of children left in hot vehicles are left there accidentally, Smith said.

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"The best solution we've found to fight this is for parents to leave an object they'll need – their wallet, for instance, or a cell phone – in the back seat of the vehicle," Smith said. "This will cause them to reach back and grab it and, in the process, they'll be more likely to notice a child that isn't meant to be left in the vehicle."

In May, the owner of an unlicensed Vaughan, Ont., daycare was sentenced to 22 months in jail after she pleaded guilty to criminal negligence causing death after leaving a two-year-old in an SUV for seven hours in 2013.

While there have been no deaths in Canada so far this year, in the United States, there have been 19 heatstroke deaths involving children in cars. In those cases, all the children were younger than three.

"People just don't understand all the dangers children face when left alone in a vehicle," Andreasen said. "Heat is only one – children get strangled to death by seat belts, injured by power windows, start fires, put the cars into gear … or find guns and accidentally shoot themselves or somebody else."

According to Kids and Cars statistics, from 1994 to 2016, 810 children in the United States died from heatstroke in cars; 11 were fatally strangled by seat belts; and 81 were killed by power windows.

Fetishizing supervision?

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The outrage over leaving even an older child alone for a few minutes ignores the reality that children are exposed to activities that are statistically more dangerous, such as riding in a car, all the time, said Free Range parenting advocate Lenore Skenazy.

"There's this idea that you can't leave your kids in the car for four minutes while you go in and pay for your gas – even though more kids die from getting hit in parking lots," Skenazy said in an interview with Globe Drive in June. "What's really being fetishized is not safety, it's supervision."

So, is there an age where children can be alone in a vehicle?

There's no "hard-and-fast rule," the Canada Safety Council said.

"We typically recommend 10 years of age as a minimum for staying home alone, but a vehicle has some inherent safety risks that include likely being restrained to the seat, the potential for sudden mechanical issues and, of course, sudden and extreme temperature changes," Smith said. "Our absolute minimum recommendation would be a child who is no longer in a booster seat, who is self-sufficient enough to be left at home alone for short amounts of time, and who is able to take care of themselves in emergency situations."

If the question needs to be asked, the child probably isn't old enough to be left alone, Smith said.

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"This holds especially true if there's a younger sibling in the car, because it requires the care of another human being and not only self-sufficiency."

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada's a big place, so please let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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Lyn Balfour forgot her 9-month-old son Bryce in the back of her car on a hot summer's day in 2007. He died of heatstroke and Balfour was charged with second degree murder. She joins Hannah Sung to discuss how and whether parents should be punished for such mistakes. Globe and Mail Update
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