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Children Left Unattended in Vehicles


How big is the problem?

In 1999 alone, at least 27 children died of hyperthermia (heat stroke) from being locked in the passenger compartment of a vehicle. All of these children were under the age of five and all of these deaths occurred during summer months (June-August) (1). When the outside temperature is 90 degrees Fahrenheit, even with the windows cracked, the air temperature inside a car can reach 125 degrees Fahrenheit in just 20 minutes and approximately 140 degrees in 40 minutes (2). In these conditions, young children can die or suffer permanent disability in a matter of minutes.

In addition to heat stroke, children left unattended in automobiles may also experience other types of injuries as well. For example, there are documented cases in which children left unattended in cars have put the vehicle in motion and hurt themselves and other people. Carjackings and abductions that may occur when a child is left alone in a vehicle are also cause for concern.

Policy and Details

States and communities shall enact and enforce laws and/or ordinances to prohibit children from being left unattended in motor vehicles.

Eleven states currently have laws that prohibit children from being left unattended in vehicles, including: Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington. In addition, New York has proposed similar legislation. You may view the KIDS 'N CARS website for links to each state's new or proposed law.

It is impossible to tell when "just a minute" becomes a moment too long. Thus, the most effective law would make it illegal for any young child to be left unattended in a vehicle without specifying a maximum time interval that the child may be left alone. The law should cover children in vehicles on public streets and on private property such as driveways and parking lots. The law should grant authority to law enforcement officers, fire fighters, emergency medical services personnel, etc. to use whatever means necessary to rescue a child who has been left unattended and in danger. The rescuers and their agencies should be granted immunity from lawsuits to recover the costs of any property damage resulting from the rescue


As of yet, there have been no studies of the effectiveness of this type of legislation. However, knowledge of the medical vulnerability of young children left unattended in cars provides a strong rationale for protecting them from this hazard. Current law provides this level of protection to animals. At least 15 states and local jurisdictions have passed legislation that makes it illegal for pets to be confined in automobiles (3). Children should have that same protection.


Janette Fennell, Cofounder
537 Jones Street #2514
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 415-789-1000
Fax: 415-789-9424

Michele Struttmann, Cofounder
918 Glenn Avenue
Washington, MO 63090
Phone: 636-390-8268
Fax: 636-390-9412


1. KIDS 'N CARS. Database search on children who have died due to hyperthermia from being left unattended in an automobile. Summary available online: May 8, 2000.

2. Gibbs LI, Lawrence DW, Kohn MA. Heat exposure in an enclosed automobile. J La State Med Soc, 147(12):545-546, 1995.

3. The Humane Society of the United States. Database search on ordinances regarding unattended animals in automobiles.

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Last modified: 4-August-2000.