Could New Jersey Parents Face Stiffer Penalties for Leaving Children in Cars?
It takes only minutes for the temperature inside a parked car to rise to dangerous levels and that can prove tragic for families when a child is left locked inside. Unfortunately, this situation occurs more often than one would think and New Jersey Assemblyman Ron Dancer (R-Jackson) has now introduced a bill that he hopes would cause all adults to pay closer attention when transporting children.(1)
Currently, New Jersey law considers leaving a child unattended in a vehicle a fourth degree offense of child neglect. The new bill proposes imposing a fine of $500 on adults who leave children six years old and younger unattended in a motor vehicle. If such actions result in injuries to the child, the offense would be considered a third degree crime punishable by up to five years in jail and a fine of $15,000. If the child suffers serious injuries or death, the offense would be increased to a second degree crime carrying the possibility of a ten-year jail term and a fine of $150,000.(1)
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), hypothermia, or heat stroke, is the number one cause of non-accident related vehicular fatalities of children under 14 years of age. A study by San Jose State University’s Department of Meteorology and Climate Science confirmed this, finding that during the period from 1998 to present more than 600 children in the U.S. died from heatstroke after having been left in a hot car. Over 50% of those deaths involved children younger than two years old. So far this year, 25 children have died in this manner.(2)
News accounts of these cases left many asking how such a thing could happen or proclaiming that it could never happen to them. Most often, however, these incidents are tragic accidents that could happen to anyone. One University of South Florida professor who has extensively studied what has become known as “Forgotten Baby Syndrome,” explained that memory functions on two levels – automatic and conscious – and while the two levels usually work together, sometimes people function on autopilot. This could explain those incidents involving a parent who is not usually responsible for taking a child to daycare going through his or her normal routine and forgetting this added responsibility.(3)
There are several apps and alarm systems designed to help parents and caregivers remember the sleeping child in the back seat. However, a study conducted back in 2012 by the NHTSA in conjunction with The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that while such devices may be helpful, they are not without limitations, including signal interference, sensitivity in arming the alarm, variations in the distances in which the signal will work, as well as the potential for misuse, and caution parents against developing a false sense of security.(2)
Others have taken a less technical approach to helping resolve this issue. One preteen from Nashville, TN, invented a device made from rubber bands and duct tape that attaches from the rear seat of a car to the front of the driver’s door and is intended to make the driver look into the backseat before exiting the vehicle.(4) Some other hints to help parents remember their children include:
• Placing a briefcase, cell phone or other item you must retrieve before leaving the car in the backseat;
• Putting the child’s diaper bag or backpack in the passenger seat as a reminder that there is a child on board;
• Asking the child’s daycare provider to contact you if the child does not show up as scheduled.
Not all of these tragic incidents are the result of Forgotten Baby Syndrome, however. Children will sometimes climb into a car without their parent’s knowledge. The NHTSA advises parents to be diligent in teaching children that cars are not places to play and keeping the car keys where children cannot reach.(5)