The Car Seat Baby-sitter

By: The Paranoid Sisters

When is it okay to leave your kids in the car when running errands? When you're just running in the store for a jug of milk? Picking another child up at preschool? When they've fallen asleep and they haven't napped yet? These are some of the questions my girlfriend and I asked as we sat outside a local coffee house on a sunny Spring morning. During our visit, three people parked and went inside to get their morning dose of caffeine, all while children waited, strapped in car seats, in the warm sun. We commented to each other, how warm the cars must be getting while each parent was inside for approximately 10 minutes. Should we say something? Isn't that illegal?

Recent news headlines talk of children dying after suffering from heat exhaustion, mothers being arrested for leaving children in the car while running into a store for a quick errand and a report from the ABC news show 20/20 are evidence that there is risk to leaving young children unattended in vehicles. It made me wonder, under what circumstances do parents and caregivers leave children in the car? Has this always been an unacceptable practice or is it a growing trend due to overworked parents and tight schedules? I found these questions are not easily answered.

Most parents I've talked to have admitted to doing it. The circumstances vary, a quick trip to the ATM, picking up dry-cleaning, collecting another child from school or daycare. Unfortunately, this is not where the list ends; too often a quick run into the store turns into 10, 20, 30 or more minutes. "The interior of a vehicle can heat up to 120-130 in less than an hour. Even vehicles parked in the shade in warm weather can pass 100 in just a matter of minutes," says Tim Maybee, Division Chief of Medical Services for the Sacramento County Fire Protection District.

According to Maybee, the time it takes heat exposure to affect the health of a child depends on many factors, age, when he last ate or drank, if he's on any medication, if he is "healthy" or suffering from a cold or other illness.

The affects of heat exposure can be devastating and include dehydration, seizures, heat stroke, burning and sloughing off of skin, even death. Maybee recalls a call he went on where a toddler had been left in the car for an unknown period, her skin was so badly burned that it sloughed off into the paramedics gloves as they were removing her from the vehicle. The severity of that incident caused the fire department to call in professional trauma counselors to help the rescuers work through their grief over the death of that child.

Some caregivers believe they are relieving the situation by leaving the car running with the air conditioning on. Maybee points out that their is potential for carbon monoxide poisoning to occur, especially in older vehicles.

So, there must be a law against this you may be thinking. According to ABC's 20/20 report, a national law does not exist, and although the states vary on their laws, very few have a specific law against leaving children unattended in a car. In the state of California, there are two laws governing this situation. Sergeant Bud Crosthwait, Traffic Supervisor of the Concord Police Department says Penal Code 237a, subsection a, makes it a felony for "any person who, under circumstances or conditions likely to produce great bodily harm or death, willfully causes or permits any child to suffer...shall be punished by imprisonment..."; this falls to a misdemeanor charge when "...conditions other than those likely to produce great bodily harm or death..." occurs. Vehicle code 22516 states that "No person shall leave standing a locked vehicle in which there is any person who cannot readily escape therefrom." The problem with the vehicle code law is it only applies to public roadways and government owned property. So the local grocery store parking lot does not apply.

Regardless of what the law says, common sense reigns. Don't leave your kids in the car to run into the store for "just a minute." Rolling up the windows and locking the doors to "protect" your children could put their health in serious danger. Remember, if your child rides in a car seat, they are not going to be able to free themselves and open the door if it gets too hot in the car (or too cold, any extreme is dangerous). According to Maybee, if you have given any thought to the weather that day, even in the morning when considering what to dress your kids in, then it's either too hot (or too cold) to leave them in the car even for a moment. Use common sense when going to the ATM, or picking up another child. Are you still in control of the car? Can you see it? Then, ask yourself -- is this nap or the one minute I'm going to save by not having to remove her from the car seat worth risking her life for?

About the authors: Lisa Carter and Lori Marques are real sisters and California natives. Together, they have five children. Their book, Child Safety Made Easy, is a compilation of three years of research on death and injury to children and is available in English and Spanish. Also known as The Paranoid Sisters, Carter and Marques frequently speak at parent conferences, on radio programs and are resources for newspaper and magazine articles. Visit their site at

Article Comments: Leave Comment

Other Articles In: Child Safety