If you are a parent with young children, I’m sure you have thought at least once about leaving your kids in the car while you ran a quick errand into the dry cleaner or convenience store. Let’s face it, getting young kids in and out of the car can turn a 3 minute stop into a 30 minute ordeal. On the other hand, you probably haven’t considered locking your kids in the car for an hour while you dropped in Parx Casino to play a few hands of blackjack, where at least twelve such incidents have occurred in the past few years rightfully resulting in criminal charges against parents or caregivers.
A recent story on Salon.com about criminal charges filed against a mother for leaving her four year-old son in the car for five minutes (on an overcast 50 degree day) while she went into a store to purchase headphones peaked my curiosity in the question, “can you ever leave a child alone in a car?”
I think it is a legitimate question, and that the answer should not simply be “no.” Although there are obviously many situation where leaving a child in a car could pose grave danger to the child, such as on warm sunny days with the windows closed, and one should always be congnizant of those very real dangers, clearly there are some situations where leaving a child in a car poses no substantial threat to the child. Indeed, I can think of many other situations that can place children in much greater danger, such as walking in a busy parking lot or playing near a busy road, which are not illegal. Indeed, some the top causes of child injury and death are auto accidents and swimming pools, but no serious person is proposing banning kids from riding in cars or backyard pools. So what does the law say about kids and parked cars?
In Pennsylvania, there are two laws under which parents or caregivers can be charged for leaving children alone in a car.
The first law is found under the Motor Vehicle Code at 75 Pa. C.S. § 3701.1, entitled “Leaving an unattended child in a motor vehicle.” That law states that “a person driving or in charge of a motor vehicle may not permit a child under six years of age to remain unattended in the vehicle when the motor vehicle is out of the person’s sight and under circumstances which endanger the health, safety or welfare of the child.” That law applies to “highways and trafficways” of Pennsylvania as well as parking lots. It does not apply to private driveways. The penalty for violating that law is . . . wait . . . a whole $25.00.
The second law that is used to prosecute parents or caregivers who leave children in cars is found under the Criminal Laws at 18 Pa. C.S. § 4304, entitled “Endangering the welfare of children.” That law states that “a parent, guardian or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 years of age, or a person that employs or supervises such a person, commits an offense if he knowingly endangers the welfare of the child by violating a duty of care, protection or support.” Unfortunately the law is vaguely written and subject to interpretation. Therefore, it is far from clear what circumstances of leaving a child in a car might qualify as “endangering the welfare of a child.” However, common sense should prevail. If a reasonable person might think that a child might be in danger, then that would probably violate the law. A violation of the law is a misdemeanor of the first degree, which carries a fine of between $1,500.00 and $10,000.00 and imprisonment of up to 5 years (although probation is the most likely punishment if the child is uninjured and it is a first-time offense).
So what does all this mean? I think that parents are well within their legal rights to leave their children in the car if (1) they can see the car at all times and (2) leaving the children in the car does not pose a significant danger to them (e.g. no closed windows on warm sunny days. In comparison, leaving a young child in the car to go into a store or other building where the car is out of sight, even if there is no significant threat of danger to the child, is probably not a good idea and borders on illegal.
In any event, YOU SHOULD NEVER LEAVE A YOUNG CHILD ALONE IN A CAR ON WARM OR HOT DAYS WITH THE WINDOWS CLOSED. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "a locked car sitting in the summer sun quickly turns into an oven," and "temperatures can climb from 78 degrees to 100 degrees in just three minutes, to 125 degrees in 6-8 minutes." I would note that most of the incidents involving child death in cars were the result of mistakes (forgetting the child was there; thinking someone else removed the child from the car) and not intentional condut.
So parents, yes you can legally leave your kids in the car to pick up your dry cleaning or something at Wawa or 7-11 so long as you can see your car while doing so and there is no other threat to the child (such as leaving the windows closed on a warm sunny day). However, the laws on child endangerment are one more reasons to skip that trip to Parx.