About two weeks ago, I pulled up to an ATM in Carytown, left my car running, hopped out to withdraw cash, and jumped back into the air conditioned vehicle. And yes, my daughter was in the backseat the whole time. Buckled into her gold-star-for-safety car seat, eating an organic banana, and drinking filtered water from her stainless steel sippy cup.
But my daughter was in the car, alone, while I was using the ATM that was about eight feet from my open car door. Had I committed a huge mommy no-no? Or an illegal act?
The next day at the park, I took a quick, informal survey. Most parents admitted to leaving their children to jump out and go very, very short distances from their cars. Some said they turned off the vehicles but left doors open. Others left the cars on. Some justified their behavior. Others pulled the human body language equivalent of tucking their tails between their legs.
Whatever your parental opinion, the risks of leaving a child in a vehicle are real and very serious. Here’s what you should know:
Leaving a child in a vehicle risks death or harm to the child. VDH very clearly advises parents never to leave children unattended in vehicles, even with the windows cracked open. In heat, fifteen short minutes can result in interior temperatures of up to 170° F. Michael Ryan, MD, assistant professor and clerkship director of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Richmond/VCU Health System, describes the dangers of heat exposure quickly progressing from heat exhaustion, in which the child experiences dizziness, weakness, and a loss of fluids, to heat stroke, in which the child’s core temperature rises to potentially fatal levels. Dr. Ryan warns, “The exact time required for heatrelated injuries depends on numerous factors related to the child and his or her environment. Studies have shown death occurring in children left in vehicles for as little as fifteen minutes.”
As for exposure to cold, the risk is less but still poses a real safety threat. Children can suffer from discomfort, frostbite, and even potential death from hypothermia.
Parents and caregivers can face legal sanctions for leaving children in vehicles. Charges for criminal abuse or neglect of a child can result from risking the child’s health. Not only is it dangerous to leave a child in a vehicle, it can be illegal, too.
If you encounter a child who is left unattended in a vehicle, call 911. Immediately. And don’t wait – a life could be at risk.
Many injuries and deaths result from children being left in a car unintentionally. For example, a caregiver might leave a child in the car to run a bag of groceries into the house, only to be interrupted by a ringing phone or a quick check of email. The child is then mistakenly left in the car.
Which brings me back around to my quick jaunt to the ATM. While it seems unlikely that I could forget about my daughter while only standing eight feet from my car, is that really a risk I want to take, no matter how small? No – and you shouldn’t either. If we all join together in this, we’ll save precious lives.