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Is it illegal to leave a child in the car?
Leaving a kid in the car or trying to break them out could cause you more trouble than you think.
If you live in a state like Louisiana, Maryland or Nebraska, it’s illegal to leave your child unattended in a car for even a minute. But safety laws involving vehicles and kids vary widely in the rest of the country.
There’s no federal law covering when and how long it’s OK to leave your kids in the car without you, although some states have enforced laws regarding leaving your children in the car.
What's in this guide?
- Compare child laws across 19 states
- Detailed laws by state
- States with no hot car laws
- How many children die in hot cars every year?
- How hot can a car get in the summer?
- If I break into a car to save a child, what am I liable for?
- Steps to take if you see a child left unattended in a car
- What should I do if my kid gets locked in the car?
- Tips for keeping kids safe in the car
- Bottom line
Compare child laws across 19 states
Only 19 US states have passed laws that specifically address kids in unattended vehicles, with another 26 states enforcing less specific “hot car” laws. Some states allow for a grace period of five minutes, and most only apply to children under six years old. A few states allow for a provision if you have a child older than 12-14 who can supervise a younger child.
|State||Child age||Limit (minutes)||Details|
|California||0-6||0||Not allowed unless supervised by someone 12+ years old|
|Connecticut||0-11||No limit||Not allowed if it endangers the child|
|Florida||0-5||0 (car is off)|
15 (car is on)
|Not allowed unless car is on|
|Hawaii||0-9||5||Not allowed for +5 minutes|
|Illinois||0-5||10||Not allowed for +10 minutes unless supervised by someone 14+ years old|
|Kentucky||0-8||No limit||Allowed but it’s felony manslaughter if the child dies|
|Louisiana||0-5||10||Not allowed for +10 minutes|
|Maryland||0-8||0||Not allowed in a locked car unless supervised by someone 13+ years old|
|Michigan||Any||0||Not allowed if it endangers the child|
|Missouri||Any||No limit||Allowed but you’re liable for any damages or injuries|
|Nevada||0-6||0||Not allowed if car is on or there’s a significant risk|
|Oklahoma||0-6||0||Not allowed if car is on or there’s a significant risk|
|Pennsylvania||0-5||0||Not allowed if it endangers the child|
|Rhode Island||0-11||0||Not allowed if it endangers the child|
|Tennessee||Any||0||Not allowed if car is on|
|Texas||0-6||5||Not allowed for +5 minutes|
|Utah||0-8||0||Allowed unless the child suffers heat stroke, hypothermia or dehydration|
|Washington||0-15||0||Not allowed if car is on or if driver is at a bar or tavern|
Detailed laws by state
States with no hot car laws
Not every state has a law on the books about whether it’s illegal to leave children in the car. But that doesn’t mean people haven’t faced criminal charges for leaving a child in the car. Cases in Arkansas and Georgia, states that don’t have hot car laws, have had parents charged and convicted with negligent homicide due to accidental hot car deaths.
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
What do vague laws mean for parents or guardians?Even without specific kids-in-cars laws on the books, a state can prosecute a parent or guardian for endangering the health of child left in an unattended vehicle. In this case, the interpretation of endangerment or harm is left up to the courts.
Even if your state doesn’t have a specific law outlining how long a kid can be left alone in a locked car, a court can apply general abuse and neglect laws regardless of any other circumstances.
How many children die in hot cars every year?
According to noheatstroke.org, an average of 39 children die each year in hot cars. And the state with the most deaths? Texas, which isn’t surprising considering its record high summer temperatures over 113 degrees.
|State||Car deaths per state|
|District of Columbia||1|
Which month has the most deaths?
Most of those deaths occur in July, which has the highest temperatures of any month. August is a close second, especially in states where August temps rival or beat July highs. That’s why it’s most important to make sure kids aren’t left alone in cars during the summer months.
How hot can a car get in the summer?
On a summer day, a car can heat up 20 degrees in 10 minutes. That means your car can go from 70 to 90 degrees in the time it takes to run into the pharmacy, and a car on a 95 degree day can heat up to 115.
|Time Elapsed||Car temperature over time on a 70° day||Car temperature over time on a 90° day|
If I break into a car to save a child, what am I liable for?
Because there’s no nationwide Good Samaritan law offering legal protection, you could be liable for property and other damage, depending on where you live. So if you break into a car window to rescue a kid, you might have to pay to replace the window, for example.
Good Samaritan laws are designed to encourage people to help their fellow citizens without worry. They’d likely protect you from damages and liability that result from rescuing a kid.
In these 16 states, Good Samaritan laws protect you and other bystanders from damages that result from coming to the aid of somebody in distress.
- South Carolina
Steps to take if you see a child left unattended in a car
You might be tempted to break a window or pry open a door to rescue a child from a locked car. Civil liability laws in your state might protect you from the resulting vehicle damages, but you could still be exposed to a lawsuit.
If you see an unattended child in a car, take these steps before taking action:
- Confirm that the child is at risk. If the child doesn’t appear in immediate danger, stay with the vehicle until a parent or guardian returns.
- Check for an unlocked door. Look for a less intrusive method of entry, if possible.
- Contact emergency services. Laws strongly protect police and paramedics when it comes to rescuing a child. If you don’t think they can respond quickly, they may be able to guide you through entering the vehicle with minimum damage.
What should I do if my kid gets locked in the car?
If your own child is locked in a car and you can’t find a way to unlock the doors, here are some steps you can take:
- If your child is in danger, call 911. If it’s an extremely hot day, your child could be in danger in a matter of minutes. Once you make the call, the police or fire department will be dispatched to your location and can assist with getting your child out. If you’ve also locked your phone in the car, find someone nearby who can make the call for you. Take note of the time you noticed your child was locked in the car so that you can relay this information to emergency services.
- Call an emergency locksmith. Locksmith services usually have someone on call around the clock. A trained locksmith can typically unlock your car within minutes.
- Call roadside assistance. If you have roadside assistance through your car insurance policy or car club membership, call for a car unlock. Let dispatch know it’s an emergency. Because it can take several hours to get help, an emergency locksmith is usually the best bet, but it never hurts to call.
- Block sunlight. If it’s a hot day and you’re waiting for help, do what you can to protect the car from direct sunlight. For example, you might throw a blanket from inside your home over the windshield, or ask someone nearby for items that you can drape over the windows.
- As a last resort, break the window. If your child is in visible distress and you’ve already called emergency services, you may consider breaking the window furthest from your child.
Will my car insurance cover damages to my car if someone breaks into it?
Yes, if your policy includes comprehensive coverage that protects your car from damages beyond your control.
Most basic policies don’t offer reimbursement for theft, vandalism and similar damages. You’d need to add this coverage to your policy.
Call your car insurance provider to determine whether your policy already includes comprehensive coverage. If it doesn’t, ask how much you might pay to add this coverage to your policy, or compare quotes from other insurers to find the best car insurance coverage.
I’m in trouble for leaving my child in the car. Do I need a lawyer?
Yes. A lawyer is an expert in state laws and will be your best resource if you’re charged with a crime.
A consultation, which is usually free, can also help you determine whether the expense is worth it against the severity of your citation or fine.
Tips for keeping kids safe in the car
- Know the law. Many states don’t allow children to be in cars unsupervised at all, even for a few minutes during a quick trip to the grocery store.
- Watch the weather. Heat stroke can happen at temperatures as low as 58 degrees. A car can heat up 20 degrees in 10 minutes.
- Check the backseat. Make sure everyone’s out of the car after a drive in the car.
- Have your babysitter check in. After someone else has driven your kid, ask them to text you to let you know everyone’s home safe.
- Know the signs of heatstroke. Symptoms include nausea, confusion, seizures, headaches, muscle cramps, red skin, rapid breathing or heartbeat and fainting.
- Be prepared to treat heatstroke. If a child is showing signs of heatstroke, move them to a cooler location and spritz them with cool water.
How can technology keep kids safe?
New car technology is constantly improving. Nissan recently released a new feature in 2019 car models called Rear Door Alert. When you turn on this feature, the car detects when you’ve opened a rear door to get in the car. Drivers will see a dashboard alert you if the rear door isn’t reopened upon arrival. This technology is planned to be standard in all new Nissans by 2020, which may cause other automakers to follow suit.
Your child seat could also help you make sure you don’t forget precious cargo in the back of your car. Evenflow and Cybex car seats offer SensorSafe chest clips that attach to the car’s seatbelts. If the clip’s still attached when the car turns off, an alert will sound. This sensor can also pair with an app, so parents can check on their car’s backseat from anywhere.
Are laws the same for pets as they are for children?
Yes, but only in a few states. For example, Arizona recently passed a bill allowing for the Good Samaritan laws of that state to extend to rescuing pets. But only a few states have made it illegal to leave a pet in a hot car.
On the whole, it’s unfortunately less likely that you’re protected by a Good Samaritan law for rescuing a pet in a hot car than for rescuing a child at risk.
You may live in a state that isn’t so firm about leaving children in cars while you shop or run errands. But no matter what state you’re in, child abuse or neglect laws could still come into play, and a little convenience while picking up milk or dry cleaning may not be worth risking a child’s health or potential legal action.
Understanding your state’s car and driving laws is also a great first step to comparing car insurance.
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