Don’t leave kids in car if they can’t handle situation

Q: I don’t know what the state law is, but I watched a police program that said a child of 6 years old can be left unattended in a locked car if not more than 15 minutes. Is that true?

A: The rules vary by state, but our state doesn’t have a broad prohibition on leaving kids unattended in cars. We have a couple laws for limited situations, but if you’re not going to a bar or leaving the engine running, it’s currently legal.

There are two laws regarding leaving a child unattended in a vehicle. One: It is a misdemeanor to leave a child under the age of 16 unattended in a parked vehicle in a public place with the motor running. Two: It is a misdemeanor to leave a child under age 12 “unattended by an adult while such person enters a tavern or other premises where vinous, spirituous or malt liquors are dispensed for consumption on the premises.”

If you think those two laws leave a giant gap for unsafe behavior, at least some legislators agree with you. A bill proposed the last two years would make it a misdemeanor to knowingly leave a child under the age of 9 unattended by an adult in a parked vehicle.

I checked the laws about reckless endangerment and criminal mistreatment, but even though leaving a baby in a car for an hour while grocery shopping is a bad idea, it doesn’t appear to meet the standards for those laws.

We don’t have to wait for a law to make the right choice about a child’s safety. Maybe a good guideline would be don’t leave your child alone in a situation where if a problem arises they can’t solve it without you. For example, if a 14-year-old is alone in a car on a sunny day, they can roll down the window or open the door if they get too warm. A sleeping 1-year-old in a car seat is trapped. Fortunately, hot car deaths are rare in Washington (six in the last 25 years). But if you’re a parent looking for something to worry about, there were 44 car thefts with kids in the car in 25 years (none of them fatal, but all certainly terrifying for the parents.)

And if we’re comparing tragedies, last year 27 kids in Washington died as passengers in traffic crashes. Deciding not to leave a child in a parked car is important, but even more important is what drivers do after they put the car in gear.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.