Is It Safe To Leave Your Child In A Car?

11/02/2014 12:30 | Updated 22 May 2015

Boy looking out rain-streaked car windowGetty

Is it ever OK to leave a child unattended in a car?

You've run out of nappies and need to dash to the nearest shop but your toddler falls asleep on the way. It's tempting to think she'll be fine in the car alone for a few moments. Leaving her for a matter of minutes seems infinitely preferable to waking her up to drag her around the shop against her will.

But did you know that a child can dehydrate and die in a locked car in a short period of time, or that the police have grounds to take you to task over the issue if they happen to drive by and spot your child alone in your car?

That's what happened to Sandra Adams, when her daughter Isabelle was two years old. "I needed a few bits from the supermarket but Isabelle had fallen asleep on the way and I didn't want to wake her," she explains.

"She had a cold and hadn't been sleeping well for a few days so I didn't want to disturb her, and I knew she wouldn't wake up while I was dashing through the supermarket. So rather than drag her into the shops I left her all cosy in the car for no more than 10 minutes. It was autumn in Scotland and I popped an extra blanket around her before I went in.

"When I came out of the shop a police car was blocking my vehicle. My heart started pounding but I realised immediately why they were there."

The police officers asked Sandra to have a seat in their car while they offered her a few stern words and took down all her details. "At the time I was quite annoyed with the police for telling me off as if I was some sort of awful negligent mother, off galivanting instead of caring for her child. I'm not, and I honestly hadn't realised it was against the law. I only had my child's best interest at heart, which I always do.

"They let me off with a warning and although I was very shocked I was also glad it happened as it has made me more aware of potential risks. Once I'd had a chance to think about it I understood their point. I would never leave her alone in the house on her own, even for five minutes, so why did I think the car was OK?"

I live in a sleepy hollow of a town with an extremely low crime rate; the kind of place where children play out in the street, and the postman opens our front door to pop packages in our hallway rather than disturb us with the doorbell. When we first moved here from London I would never have dreamt of leaving my children unattended in the car, but something of the town's easygoing atmosphere has rubbed off on me.

At first I was cautious. I'd leave my sleeping three-year-old in the car only as I dashed across the road to collect his brother from the school gates, never taking my eyes off the car. Then one day all the parking spaces opposite the school were full and I momentarily considered leaving my sleeping son in the car despite the fact that it would be out of my sight. Most recently my sons begged to stay in the car while I ran into the chemist's, and I felt like an over-protective parent for refusing to let them do so. I've also left both my boys sleeping in the car parked on our driveway before now.

But while researching this post I read accounts of American parents whose children had all died while left unattended in cars. In most of the accounts the parents had unfathomably forgotten that their children were in the car, having been distracted or confused about the childcare plans for the day, so their children were left for hours rather than minutes, and the climate was rather more tropical and therefore deadly than anywhere in the UK.

But the details are horrific and too gruesome to relay. And they've changed my entire stance on the question of whether it's ever safe to leave my child unattended in my car. What struck me about those accounts was the fact that each of the parents seemed to be decent, loving parents and law-abiding citizens, not the drug-addled, cruel monsters I so easily assume from headlines.

Yes, it strikes me as utterly inconceivable that a parent could forget about a child in the back seat of a car but those parents' heart-rending accounts go some way to helping me understand how something so incomprehensible could happen. And if that can happen then surely anything can, which is why I'll never leave my children unattended in the car from now on.

An estimated 15-25 children die in the USA every year as a result of being left unattended in cars. Car interiors heat up very quickly and young children, especially babies, cannot regulate their temperature, which is why it can be a lethal combination.

In the UK, children's charities recommend never leaving children unattended although the law on the matter is a grey area. It's an offence to abandon or neglect a child but some parents argue that a child who can be seen at all times cannot be described as abandoned. Nevertheless, the police are likely to take a dim view of a parent who leaves a child unaccompanied, no matter what the circumstances.

There are several issues at stake here, from the frightening dangers associated with our modern obsession with multi-tasking, to the serious health risks posed by leaving a child unaccompanied in a car. I also think we're expecting too much too young by trusting children to take care of themselves in this way even for a matter of minutes.

But even in a temperate climate in a town with a low crime rate, there are numerous other factors to consider before you leave your child, even within your view. What if something happens to you while you're in the shop, leaving your children unattended for longer than you anticipated, possibly without anyone knowing they're there? What if they wriggle free and open a door into oncoming traffic? Or release the handbrake? And that's without the unforeseen possibilities like the chances of your car being struck by another vehicle.

The bottom line is that if anything were to happen to my child in my car I'd want to be within arm's reach. I'd rather drag an over-tired and overwrought toddler round the supermarket than jeopardise his safety. A seemingly urgent packet of nappies or a pint of milk is never worth the risk you take when you leave your child unattended. And as my mother used to say, always better safe than sorry.

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