In NJ, It’s Not a Crime to Leave a Kid in a Car — But it Could Be
Despite the dangers of leaving children alone in vehicles in lethal heat, it continues to happen across the United States and in New Jersey.
According to Amy Artuso, program manager with The National Safety Council, 683 children have died from heatstroke in the United States from being left unattended in a hot car, since 1998.
"Twelve of those actually, between 1998 and 2015, were from the state of New Jersey," said Artuso.
Despite the tragedies, New Jersey does not have a specific law to protect children, according to New Jersey Assemblyman Ron Dancer (R-Jackson).
"Unbelievably, New Jersey does not. However, it does for animals. Animal cruelty charges, but when it comes to saving the babies, we need to beat the heat and check the backseat," said Dancer.
A judge can deem leaving a child in a car abuse in some cases, as in a case Townsquare Media reported Tuesday. In that case, a mother left a baby in a warm car, bundled up, for more than two hours without any access to water or food.
A measure Dancer introduced in March, 2014 to increase penalties for adults who leave children unattended in vehicles is still pending.
Dancer said unfortunately, legislation doesn't move until there's a crisis or a tragedy. The last time a child reportedly died from being left alone in a car in New Jersey was in 2008.
"This law, when it goes into effect, will heighten public awareness and it will increase penalties that if a guardian or parent happens to leave a child, under 6 years old, unattended and unsupervised in a motor vehicle," Dancer said.
Under his bill, the parent would be guilty of a disorderly persons offense the first time he or she leaves a young child in a car — risking a fine of $500 or prison up to 3 days. But if there's harm to the child, it would become a third-degree crime. And if the child suffers serious bodily injury or death, the parent would be charged with a second-degree crime — carrying a fine that could reach as much as $150,000 or up to 10 years in prison.
Children's bodies heat up three to five times faster than an adults' bodies, according to Artuso.
"Even on cool days, windows in a vehicle act like a greenhouse effect. Leaving the windows cracked open, which many seem to think makes a difference, it's been proven that it doesn't in studies," she said. "Eighty percent of the total heat rise that will occur in the car once it's all closed up, happens within the first 30 minutes. The temperature inside the car can rise about 19 degrees in 10 minutes."
Once a child's core body temperature reaches 104 degrees, heat stroke begins, Artuso said.
"And typically, around 107, that leads to a death, a fatality, so it can happen very quickly," she said..
According to statistics tracked by Jan Null of San Jose State University, 54 percent of children who die of heatstroke in cars had been left accidentally — usually in back seats — by parents. Another 29 percent gain access to vehicles on their own.
The National Safety Council recommends people "look before they lock."
"Get in the habitm Make it part of your routine. Look in your backseat, whether you have your children with your or not, and always lock your vehicle," Artuso said.
She said several of the children who have died this year gained access to unlocked vehicles while playing or getting toys.
New Jersey State Police spokesman Lt. Brian Polite has dealt with incidents of children and pets being left in hot vehicles and said it astounds him.
He challenged adults to inconvenience themselves a little instead of thinking children will be safe if they run into a store.
"Is your child worth that inconvenience for you to get out of the vehicle, cut the vehicle off, take your child with you? All right, you're losing two to three minutes, but think about the worst-case scenario," Polite said.