Leaving a kid or pet 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. Yet 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 6 years old. A few states allow for a provision if you have a child older than 12-14 who can supervise a younger child.
Compare child laws across 19 states
|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
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.
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.
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 damages, depending on where you live.
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 or pet.
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
Minimizing your liability if you see a child in an unattended car
You might be tempted to break a window or pry open a door to rescue a child or pet 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, you might want to stay with the vehicle until a parent or guardian returns.
- Check that all doors are locked. 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.
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 consult can also help you determine whether the expense is worth it against the severity of your citation or fine.
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.
On the whole, it’s less likely that you’re protected by a Good Samaritan law for rescuing a dog or cat than for rescuing a child at risk.
Is it illegal to lock an unattended pet in a car?
In most states, no. Only New Jersey and West Virginia have passed laws making it illegal to leave a pet locked in a hot car. But even in these two states, you’re not protected from legal or civil liability if you break into the car to save the animal — neither are paramedics or the police.
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.