November 12, 2011

State board: Laws should ban children being left alone in vehicles

The Kansas Child Death Review Board is recommending that the Legislature enact laws that prohibit children from being left alone in vehicles.

The Kansas Child Death Review Board is recommending that the Legislature enact laws that prohibit children from being left alone in vehicles.

“There is no substitute for supervision, especially when it involves children and vehicles,” the board says in its 2011 annual report.

Children left in vehicles can die from exposure to heat and cold, strangulation and crashes caused by a child putting a vehicle in gear, the report said.

“Most often the deaths take place within minutes,” it said.

Other risks include a car with a child being stolen and children suffocating from becoming locked in a trunk “while a frantic parent searches the surrounding area for the missing child,” the report said.

Although current laws deal with child endangerment, there are no state laws that specifically prohibit leaving a child unattended or unsupervised in a car, said Kim Parker, a Child Death Review Board member who is chief deputy district attorney in Sedgwick County.

Having such laws would raise awareness of the dangers and make not leaving a child alone in a car a habit - “like buckling your seat belt,” Parker said.

As it is, she said, “I don’t think people thought about the dangers until something bad happened.”

She cited a case, from her experience as a prosecutor, in which a boy died after his head and neck got caught after he activated an electric window.

There have been cases “where people had a child in a car, and they just forgot a child was in a car,” she said, because people get distracted.

In its latest annual report, the board said the Legislature should enact laws including:

•  That no child under 5 may be left in a vehicle unless accompanied by another person 13 or older.
•  That no child under 5 may be left unsupervised or unattended in a vehicle unless the vehicle is being loaded or unloaded and an adult is in the immediate vicinity.

There would be a $25 fine for a first conviction; subsequent convictions within three years of the first violation would result in a minimum fine of $250, not exceeding $500.

Parker said she thinks there’s a good chance the recommendation could be enacted. “I think it’s really hard to argue with.”

Wichita police Deputy Chief Tom Stolz said the proposed laws appear to be a common-sense approach that could prevent injuries and deaths.

Wichita officers have responded to instances where children have been left in a car for an hour or so while a parent shops, he said. Sometimes, officers have to go into a store to find the parent.

“We always try to rely on people’s common sense and reasonableness,” but there have been “too many lapses of common sense and reasonableness in the past,” he said. It reaches a point where government has to step in to help protect vulnerable children when their parents won’t, he said.

Other public policy recommendations the board put in its report are:

•  Changing the Kansas farm permit law to require that drivers pass a formal driver’s education course and to prohibit youths from driving to and from school. The board said there should be “strict adherence to, and enforcement of, Kansas law by law enforcement officials.” Currently, to obtain a farm permit for driving, a youth must be at least 14.
•  Taking measures to improve women’s health before conception or pregnancy to “help prevent poor birth outcomes for both the mother and her baby.”
•  Bolstering partnerships for public education. Part of it would be a statewide campaign to increase awareness of the need for supervision and water safety to prevent drowning deaths.
•  Increasing awareness of whooping cough, an infectious illness that can result in complications like pneumonia that can cause death. Infants less than a year old are at greatest risk.
•  Continuing to have comprehensive investigation of child deaths. The board said it hopes that available funds will encourage autopsies “in all potentially unnatural child deaths.”

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