When you're out in the car and need to run into the store for a minute, you might not want to wake your sleeping child. But it is never safe to leave a small child unattended in a car, even if he is in his car seat. Many states have enacted laws against leaving children unattended in a car. Each state sets its own age limit and, in some cases, a time limit for what the state believes is legal. To be safe, never leave your young child in the car, no matter how inconvenient this may seem.
In 2013, 19 states enacted laws that relate to how old a child must be and how long children can stay in the car without an older child or adult with them, according to the Kids and Cars website. Another 14 states, including Arizona, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and Virginia have proposed legislation on this matter while two states -- Missouri and Kentucky -- have laws that apply only in situations in which a child dies when left alone in the car. The remaining states have no legislation that address issues of leaving children alone in a vehicle.
Every state sets its own age limits on when a child can remain in the car without supervision. States also enact legislation on how old a child acting as a babysitter must be. In California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska and Pennsylvania, children under 6 cannot be left alone in the car. In other states, such as Missouri, age 10 is the minimum age for leaving a child in the car. Utah sets the age limit at 9, and Texas and Tennessee at age 7. In California, a child of 12 can watch a child younger than 6 in the car. In other states, such as Illinois and Texas, 14 is the minimum age for watching a younger child, while in Louisiana, the older child must be at least 10. The state of Washington has the most stringent age limit; adults cannot leave an unattended child under 16 in a car while the car's motor is running.
Time or Distance Limits
In some states, legislation limits the amount of time a child can be left alone in the car. In most cases, the time limits are short, such as 10 minutes, as in Illinois. In Louisiana, an adult must be no more than 10 feet away from the car. In Florida, the time is 15 minutes for any amount of time when the vehicle is running, while Hawaii imposes a five-minute time limit. In Maryland and Pennsylvania, the car must be within sight of the responsible adult, some states, such as Michigan, don't list a specific amount of time that a child cannot be alone, but states that the period must not pose an unreasonable risk of harm.
Most parents don't think about the risks of leaving an unattended child in the car. In 2011, overheating killed 33 children, according to the Kids and Cars website. Even when the outside temperature is in the 60s, the temperature inside a car can rise nearly 20 degrees during the first 10 minutes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Since 1990, 50 children have died in power window accidents, while thousands have suffered injuries such as finger amputations.
Penalties vary from state to state. Some states, such as Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas set a monetary fine or imprisonment. Others, such as Nevada, also mandate a community education program or training. California fines offenders but may substitute mandatory attendance at a community training program for parents who can't pay the fine. If any harm comes to child, the person who left the child in the car could be charged with committing a class 3 felony, which can result in jail time.