Is it ever safe or legal to leave a child in an automobile for quick errands? I have an 11-year-old who would rather sit in the car with the windows down and play games on his phone while I'm running into the bank for five minutes. If I do that, am I a bad mother? I'm afraid somebody will take a photo or turn me in and I'll get arrested. — Elizabeth, Toronto
It's up to parents to decide if it's safe to leave their kids alone – whether it's at home or in the car – but they could be charged if police decide their children are in danger, Toronto Police says.
"Every situation is different. Each individual has to assess the risk to their children and make a decision on their own," says Toronto Police Traffic Services Const. Cliff Stibbe. "But the parents have to realize that should something occur, they could face charges under the Criminal Code of Canada."
While 19 U.S. states have specific laws against leaving children unattended in vehicles, Canada doesn't. Instead, police investigate each case and decide which charges are warranted, says Stibbe.
In previous cases in the press, charges have included child abandonment. That's Section 218 and it defines "children" as being under the age of 10.
Stibbe wouldn't specify which charges a parent might face. "Police can use the entire criminal code," he says. "You can't paint every incident with a single brush."
Greenhouse on wheels?
How dangerous is it to leave kids alone in cars? Last year, a two-year-old Milton, Ont. boy and a three-year-old Edmonton girl died of vehicle-related heat stroke.
"A vehicle is just a greenhouse on wheels. In the first ten minutes you get the fastest increase in temperature," says Amber Rollins, director of advocacy group Kids and Cars. "With young children, their body temperature rises three to five times faster than adults and any time in a hot vehicle is not good."
Kids and Cars says there were 44 deaths of kids in hot cars in the U.S. last year. This year, there have been 16 vehicle-related heat stroke deaths of kids in the U.S. and, so far, none in Canada.
The majority of heat stroke deaths, 87 per cent, are kids three and under, Rollins says. Almost always, they've been in rear facing car seats, she says. And, they were usually left accidentally in the car all day by a parent or caregiver who'd somehow had their routine disrupted.
Stories of kids dying in cars has effectively outlawed leaving kids alone in the car for quick trips to the dry cleaners or drugstore.
"Now you're hearing of parents of 9 and 10 year-old-kids getting arrested for doing something our parents did," says Lenore Skenazy, who made international news in 2009 when she wrote about letting her 9-year-old son take the New York City subway alone. "We're primed by this very hysterical society to think we're all Superman and can swoop in and save this kid – we're warped to see danger everywhere."
Skenazy says she's hearing more and more stories of parents running into trouble – for example, a mom was charged after a passerby took a photo of her four-year-old son left alone in the car for a few minutes with an iPad – when their kids aren't in danger, even in states without specific laws against leaving kids alone.
"Those stories of deaths are horrifying and they stay with us but those are cases where kids have been left alone in hot cars for hours," Skenazy says. "Everyone talks about how fast a car heats up, and it does, but I can find no stories of a child who died of hyperthermia during a regular errand."
When those deaths happen, Skenazy says, they make the news and reporters call up Kids and Cars. But, she says, the average of 38 deaths a year isn't an epidemic.
"The number one way kids die is by being driven somewhere – but we don't hear nationally about all these crashes left and right because there are so many more," she says. "But we don't say 'how dare you put them in the car and drive somewhere' because we recognize that the danger is relatively minimal."
Part of the trouble, Skenazy says, is that passers-by see children alone in a car, assume they're being abused and call 911. Instead, she says, if you see kids alone in a car and are concerned, you should wait nearby to see if kids are okay and if the mom is coming back. If they don't – or if the kid is in trouble – then get concerned.
"Instead of watching out for each other by waiting for a few minutes, we call the police," she says. "It takes a village, it doesn't take the Gestapo."
What to do when you see a child in a car?
But waiting for a parent could be a bad idea, says Kids in Cars' Rollins.
"It could lead to an angry confrontation with the parent," she says. "We say you should be calling 911."
If a child is in distress and you can't call 911, you may have to decide to break a window, police say.
Rollins says kids shouldn't be left alone in vehicles until they're "old enough to drive."
"It's not just heat stroke, kids die every year getting strangled by power windows or by taking the car for a ride when the parents aren't there," Rollins says. "We need to start thinking of the safety of children around vehicles the same way we think of children around bodies of water – they should never be left unattended around a pool."
At what age can you leave children unattended? Raynald Marchand, General Manager if the Canada Safety Council, recommends "12 years of age since that the minimum age for babysitter training here at the Canada Safety Council."
In 2014 in the U.S., there were one child death from a power window, three child deaths in crashes after a car was knocked into gear and seven from kids who got into crashes while driving.
"In almost every case, these aren't bad parents – they're good parents and good people who may have made a bad decision," she says.
Kids and Cars has launched a petition in the U.S. calling for technology to help end children dying in hot cars. Click here for more details.
If you have questions for Jason Tchir about driving or car maintenance, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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