Leaving Kids Alone in the Car:​ When Experts Say It's Okay

child alone in carYou've seen the headlines. Baby dies after being left in hot car. Mom arrested for leaving child alone in the car. No doubt, you've read the warnings too. Don't leave your child in the car! They can be stolen. They can overheat. They can knock the car into gear. ANYTHING can happen, so just don't do it.

Good advice for parents of babies, for parents of toddlers. Except ... what happens when your kids start to grow up? By 16 in most states, kids are legally allowed to drive a vehicle. So common sense would dictate that there must be an age, sometime before 16, when you can legally -- and safely -- leave your kid alone in a car, unsupervised.

So, when can you leave your kid in a car without risking a visit from police? When is it safe for your child to be alone in a car without you?

Believe it or not, there is no one, specific age.

Laws in 19 states make it illegal for children to be left unattended in a vehicle, but the laws vary wildly. In California, for example, a child 6 or younger must be under the supervision of someone 12 or older if they're in a motor vehicle. There's nothing on the books about, say, an 8-year-old or a 9-year-old.

Move to Connecticut, however, and what might be considered safe in Los Angeles or San Francisco could land you in jail. The Constitution State will take action on a parent of any child under 12 left unsupervised in a motor vehicle if law enforcement believe the child was left there "for a period of time that presents a substantial risk to the child's health or safety."

The wording is nebulous, at best, and what's more, that's a five-year age gap from a law in another state! No wonder parents are confused. And what of the 31 states where there's no law on the books specific to kids, cars, and supervision?

Lorrie Walker, training manager and technical advisor for the Safe Kids Buckle Up Program, admits she has no easy answer for parents.

"Every child is different, even children in the same household," Walker said.

When The Stir first approached the global non-profit to answer parents' most common question about kids and cars, Walker noted there was "very little data and not much known about levels of safe supervision and children."

More From The Stir: 'I Left My Baby in a Hot Car': One Mom Shares Her Tragic Story

Following your state's law should be first and foremost on parents' minds (the folks at Kids and Cars have a thorough list of the laws on the books every parent should check), but in cases where there is no law -- or if you want to be extra careful -- Walker suggests the following guidelines:

  • If your child is in a car seat, they shouldn't be alone. "Children in car seats are not ready to help themselves and should never be left alone in a car -- not even for one minute," Walker says. "As we’ve seen too often, it’s easy to be distracted even when paying for gas or entering the dry cleaners."
  • Ask yourself, "Would my older children recognize that they were sick and overheated and know what to do?" "If your children would do something like lay on a floor, cry, or wait for help, then they’re not ready to be left alone without an adult in a car," Walker warns. "Or if your children don’t know how to get out of a car on their own -- many children who climb into an unlocked car do not know to climb into the front seat and open the doors without child locks on them -- then, again, they are not ready to be left alone."

Yes, they might LEGALLY be allowed to stay in the car in your state, but if they can't protect themselves, you'd be wise to bring them into the store to grab that gallon of milk.

On the other hand, if they're of legal age AND they can recognize and understand when they need help AND if they know how to get out of a locked car on their own, especially if they are sick or overcome by heat and might not be thinking clearly, Walker suggests one more step before making the decision to walk away from the car ...

  • Ask yourself, "If my children did get out of the car, would they know how to safely find an adult to get help?" It's not enough to get themselves out of the car. You want to make sure they won't get hit by a car in a parking lot or head off in a direction away from help.

"If you believe your children could safely exit the car, navigate a parking lot, avoid the potential danger from strangers, and find help, then you might be ready to test their behavior to make sure they are absolutely ready to do this task without you," Walker says. "Test it out while you’re able to observe them to be sure they are following the appropriate steps that you taught them."

After following the laws of your state, the most important thing a parent can do is to follow their own gut.

"You know your child best, and you should trust your instincts, whether it comes to letting you children stay alone in a car, walk to school on their own, or be near water without an adult watching (even older, more experienced swimmers should still swim with a partner every time)," Walker says. "Children mature at different rates and at different ages. It is our job as parents to talk to our kids and educate them on how to be ready for different challenges so they know what to do to stay safe when an adult is not present."

When did you start leaving your kids alone in the car? What was your clue that they were ready?


Image via © iStock.com/AIMSTOCK



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AliPa... AliParker

All the "experts say: perfect age" articles are so silly. It should be common sense not to leave a small child in the car. It's unfortunate that so many people that have no common sense are parents. Other than that there is no "perfect age, one size fits all". Everyone matures and grows differently. Every parent has different comfort levels. I suppose suggestions can be helpful for a parent but "experts" can't say 10 is an appropriate age when some 10 year olds wouldn't handle it well. Most parents know their children and can make a good decision for themselves.

As for the question my kids are 5 & 6. I have not made that move yet.

malex... malexander2009

Yeah I'm gonna jump right on juggling 5 kids under 4 in a gas station for two minutes while I pay for gas. Most pumps have a time limit on them so by the time I got every one back on the car the pump would have turned off and I would have to get the back out and take them back in not happening.

sunfl... sunflower1968

12 was the youngest.

N it was where I could see the car n was only going to be away a hot minute.

You never know who is watching for that right moment for anything to go wrong.

lizilli lizilli

Yes, malexander2009, at the gas station while pumping gas and at the bottom of a long driveway while checking the mailbox, or when there is something in he driveway that needs moving before I can get to the garage.  Otherwise, No Way, it's to potentially dangerous to leave the most precious things in the world alone, on display and vulnerable.  I even question the wisdom of leaving a beautiful 12 or 13 year old girl alone in the car, but at some point one must let go and allow, maybe, Alas . . . .

nonmember avatar krystian

Well then malexander, you shouldn't have had that many kids so close together.....if you want to be lazy and not take them in with you, don't get gas with them. Or don't have that many kids.

Bottom line, until the kids are old enough to understand and are mature enough to be in the car, then do not leave them alone.

nonmember avatar Cellabowi

Krystian your comment is ridiculous. I don't know why I would take my baby out of the car to put gas in it considering yuo have to stand right next to the car in order to do so. I'm not even 5 feet away from her!

youth... youthfulsoul

This goes for being left alone at home as well. My ex left our elementary school aged kids home alone a lot  and there was nothing I could do about it because it's not against the law. Wtf

nonmember avatar Becky proulx

I have twins who are almost eleven now! I am an older mom, have eight children total! Twins were a gift! Not once did I leave them in the car, I could now I am sure! They don't want to! But as little ones I carried them both with me or waited till my husband or older kids got home from school! Children are to precious and innocent to take that risk!

IKnow... IKnow0101

@cellabowl she was not talking about standing at the pump but actually going into the store and paying for the gas first. And yes its hard to take kids in and out of cars to run a quick errand but you should not leave children that young in a car by themselves. It only takes a minute. Now if you have a ten year old in the car with them that is something totally different.

nonmember avatar AJ

I have to disagree. I wouldn't leave a child of any age alone in a car the way the world is now! I mean really watch your local news and realize these people are roaming around in your neighborhood, then justify your laziness. It's not just kids that cannot recognize what beat is doing to them. If you brought them with you then you should keep them with you while you're out. It's called being responsible- perhaps you should look it up!

By the way, if you are goi g to leave your baby in the car while you pump gas, you should crack their window and lock the doors. Someone could be watching and sneak through the other door and grab them. It's happened, and some people have snuck in unlocked cars only to be discovered when the driver is driving down the road from the gas station. I'm just telling you local things, but hey we live in the country and it's supposed to be safer than the cities. Just keep an eye on hour little ones.

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