Should I leave my kids in the car, unattended?

I’m certain that we all agree that leaving young children in cars, unattended, is dangerous and reprehensible. However, is this an absolute contraindication, or is it dependant on factors such as: age, time, visibility and distance?

When traveling by automobile, I secure my two daughters, ages 3 and 5, safely to age-appropriate child-seats. They understand and comply with our rule of not unfastening the buckles, unless we ask them to do so. When I stop for gas and complete pumping (Florida is a pump-your-own-gas state), I remove the girls from their seats and bring them into the store so that I may pay for the gas. I have always assumed that leaving them unattended in the car would be illegal, but I am often struck with the thought that doing so may be the more appropriate action. I always stop at combination gas station/convenience stores that have full window fronts, therefore my car remains visible to me the entire time that I am in the store and I am in and out of the store in less than 5 minutes.

Keeping the kids in the car alone exposes them to two potential hazards (that I can think of): 1) car-jacking/kidnapping, and 2) the girls unbuckling their seats and getting into or causing some type of mayhem (unlikely with my kids, as explained above). Bringing the girls into the store exposes them to two different potential hazards (that I can think of): 1) Getting hit by a car on the often heavily trafficked parking lot, and 2) slip-and-fall type accidents on the oil-slicked macadam and often slippery-floored stores. In my opinion, the potential for harm is much greater in bringing my kids into the store as opposed to leaving them briefly unattended in the car.

Three questions: 1) Is it indeed illegal (at least in Florida) to leave children alone briefly in the car, as in the above scenario? 2) Do you/ would you leave your children in the car under similar circumstances? 3) Do you agree with my comparative risk-assessment?

I can contribute what the Texas penal code has to say about it.

Title 5, Chapter 22, Section 10 ¤ 22.10. LEAVING A CHILD IN A VEHICLE. (a) A person commits an offense if he intentionally or knowingly leaves a child in a motor vehicle for longer than five minutes, knowing that the child is: (1) younger than seven years of age; and (2) not attended by an individual in the vehicle who is 14 years of age or older. (b) An offense under this section is a Class C misdemeanor. Note: If the child is injured, the charge is then elevated to child endangerment, which is a felony. The penalties are six months to two years in jail and a fine up to $10,000.

Personally, I wouldn’t leave small kids for even 5 seconds. Sure, usually nothing would happen. But when things do happen, it always seems like it was just in “no time.”

Well, the factual part refers to the law, which I can’t answer.

When my kids were 3 and 5 I would not leave them in the car, not for one minute. When my daughter got to be 6 or so, I would leave her in circumstances similar to what you describe–short distance from car, car fully visible–when I was confident she could follow instructions to stay put and not touch anything in the car. I did not have that confidence at age 3.

In risk assessments one must consider two factors: the probability of an outcome, and the impact of the outcome. I have a fear (which might not be born out by statistics) of the children getting the car to move, or being kidnapped, either of which have what might as well be infinite impact. So I mitigate that risk ahead of risks that may be more likely but lower impact.

This is anecdotal evidence but shows that the nightmare scenario, though rare, is possible.

Car Stolen With Child Inside

Car stolen with baby inside

stolen car which also happened to have a 11 month old baby

I agree that it’s almost always a bad idea to leave kids in a car alone for more than five seconds, but doesn’t Florida have any gas stations that let you pay at the pump, so you don’t have to be more than five feet from the car?

Well, I must just be a horrible mother then. I have two, 4 & 1.5. If I’m at a gas station and have to run in for a minute, I leave them in the car. I feel more comfortable if the 4 y/o isn’t there, because he would be the one to cause mayhem. Another example of bad parenting is that if/when baby is sick/asleep when we arrive at pre-school, I illegally park (a whole other issue please), put on my flashers, crack the window, lock the door and run the 4 y/o inside to school. That takes a total of 3 minutes.

It’s way better than waking up/hauling out a sick baby and just making him miserable, IMVHO.

I always assumed that the “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me” aspect of Parenthood was just part of the package. You get pregnant, you get joined at the hip to the resultant progeny for the next five years or so. In the Pleistocene, it was Mommy’s job not to leave her preschoolers where hyenas could get at them, and in the 21st century it’s Mommy’s job not to leave her preschoolers where kidnappers can get at them.

Not to mention leaving them to fool around with the car controls. At the very least, you’ll come back to find your radio buttons screwed up and your wipers on.

I just shrugged and took my kids inside with me, every time, everywhere. So for years and years, I had three little shadows that went in and out with me. All part of the package, I thought.

Just wishing to point out that 3 minutes is plenty of time for another driver to crash into your illegally-parked, locked car with your baby inside.

And since the door is locked, nobody can get in there to get your baby out.

And when the police show up, they find that your car was not only illegally parked, but was also locked, with a baby left inside, so that nobody could rescue it. And depending on your state, I’d bet that enough shit would then commence to hit the fan that you’d begin to wish you’d brought the sick cranky baby inside with you.

Just a thought.

California, eh?`s_1807.htm

Kaitlyn’s Law.

IANAL, but I’d have to say that “illegally parked in the roadway, susceptible to being rear-ended by a driver not expecting a parked car in a traffic lane” would count as “conditions that present a significant risk to the child’s health”.

Kaitlyn was a 6-month-old baby who died of heat stroke when her babysitter left her in a van.

Like I said, low probability, huge impact.

We always took MilliCal with us, egardless of how much trouble it was. My heart goes out to anyone coping with two, but I thinmk we still would’ve done the same. Too much can happen when you’re out.

Now that MilliCal is older, it’s legal for us to leave her for short stints, if we ghave to run in quick to pay for gas or grab something at the convenience store. On these occasionsd I always tell her not to bark at the passers-by. Which, of course, she then has to do.

Thank you. Honestly. I admire the knowledge of this board. I really hadn’t envisioned an accident trapping my baby locked inside. Will ponder this thought the next time the situation arises.

As an aside and huge-ass excuse, when I said illegally parked, I meant {oh no!} either in the HUGE (literally 20’ across) blue unloading space or against an island which is out of the line of traffic. Please don’t beat me with the wet noodle…

[puts wet noodle away regretfully]


This is from the father of a five and a half year old, who is only now being left alone for very brief times, such as paying for gas–although she usually wants to come inside with me anyway. . .

Your car’s just as likely to be rear ended while you’re in the car with the child. Actually, since you’re probably in the car with the child far longer, the odds are higher you’ll be there when the collision occurs.


As long as we’re compiling and comparing…

Illinois law is irritatingly vague while using a whole lot of words on the topic. The best info I can find is from this pamphlet (warning: doc file!) called Preparing Children to Stay Alone (May 2001), by the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services

They go on to list those 15 factors:

Nothing cut and dried like “Under six years for 15 minutes when the Moon is in Scorpio.” I guess I understand on one hand, because this leaves lots of room for looking at each case on it’s merits adn taking into account extenuating circumstances and individual kids. OTOH, it leaves me feeling rather vulnerable as a parent: what if someone else has different standards than I do and thinks I’m endangering my 13 year old when he babysits my 1 year old? I know he’s perfectly capable, but not everyone may agree.

If the only time your concerened about this is when running in to pay for gas I’d suggest getting a checking debit card from your bank and using it to pay at the pump.
I can honestly say that I have not went inside a gas station to pay for gas within the last 10 years.
If I do run up against a gas station that does not have a pay-at-the-pump feature (very,very,very rare nowdays) I usually leave and go to a different gas station.

Thus far, we have only considered the risks incurred by leaving children in cars. We must give consideration to the risks incurred by taking children into the gas station, as well. The sad fact is that pedestrians do, at times, get seriously injured and killed in and around parking lots. I have no relevant statistics (and doubt that they even exist for this special case circumstance), but my gut reaction is that more children may be injured or killed as pedestrians in parking lots as opposed to being injured or killed by remaining in the car for a couple of minutes (by car-jacking or vehicular collisions).

I witness many reckless drivers in parking lots and some get precariously close to striking pedestrians, so I must conclude that this is a serious risk. (If you’re going to be struck by a vehicle, better to be in a vehicle as well). The possibility also exists that your child may break free from your grasp (particularly if you are negotiating more than one child) and he or she may run into highway traffic (I recall reading of cases like this resulting in death). Children may also be seriously injured or killed from slip-and-fall head injuries in oil-slick parking lots. Admittedly, the risks of taking children into gas stations is most likely quite miniscule. However, I do allow for the possibility that serious risk incurred by keeping children in a car for 3 or 4 minutes may be even more miniscule. All things considered, if statistics were to bear out that my children are less at risk for serious injury or death by remaining in an unattended car for a couple of minutes, then I should consider that option. I don’t know the statistics in this situation, hence my OP question.

The risk of heat stroke does not exist in the gas station scenario of 3 or 4-minute absences. As far as mayhem that children may cause in an unattended vehicle, I suppose you should take it on a child-by-child case basis. In the case of my 3-year old, she can’t even unbuckle from the seat by herself and my 5-year old is quite responsible. Even if the 3-year old did manage to unbuckle herself, she would be unlikely to move the vehicle (gear-shift is difficult for a 3-year-old to move, the key is not left in the car…etc.). Fire hazard should not exist since there are no lighters in our vehicle. She would be unlikely to leave the vehicle due to the sliding doors being beyond her capacity to open.

Even if statistics bore out that it was more dangerous to take children into gas stations, one should not be tempted to extrapolate this to other circumstances. For instance, one could try to justify leaving a child in the car while they hop into Wal-Mart for just a minute or two. In this case, even with good intentions, the possibility exists that one could forget about the kids in the car and remain far too long in the store. This possibility does not exist in a gas station (you’re not likely to forget the kids and stay in the gas station too long).

Sometimes, we are fooled into exposing ourselves to more risk in an effort to reduce risk – good intentions gone awry. Case in point: a very good argument can be made that putting toilet seat protectors on public toilet seats exposes you to more risk than not putting them on. Why? When putting toilet seat protectors on you are much more likely to touch the toilet seat with your hands. While getting a few rogue bacteria on your backside is relatively free of serious risk, the same can not be said of getting those bacteria on your hands (hands that often make their way to your mouth). So, in this case, attempting to reduce risk, results in incurring more risk. I’m simply positing that the same may be true of bringing children into gas stations as opposed to leaving them unattended for a couple of minutes.

For the record, I do not leave my girls in the vehicle alone at any time. I’m simply saying that I would consider doing so in the special circumstance of the gas station, if I was convinced that doing so constituted less of a serious risk than not doing so.

Nobody would think to break out a window if a baby was in danger?

I would never, ever, leave a preschooler unattended in a car, under any circumstances. My girls were pretty old before I’d leave them in the car. Once they’re out of the strap-in baby seats, it’s no big deal to have them unbuckle and come into the store anyway, and by that time, they usually want to come in anyway. The gas station scenario does not apply, since we have full service gas stations at no extra cost in NJ.

This is a way better rule than the hard-and-fast rules the other states have. It depends on lots of things. Parents know better than the authorities what their children can handle.