Many Mums and Dads are familiar with this testing scenario. You’ve just filled up the family car with petrol at the servo. There’s a baby sleeping soundly in a capsule, a grumpy toddler in a booster seat, maybe even a whinging pre-schooler in the back, too. Oh, and it’s raining. And you’re running late.
Unloading and reloading all the kids is a military operation. Wouldn’t it be easier to just whip in, pay and jump back in the car? It’s not like you’re leaving your kids in a carpark while god forbid you nick off and play the pokies for two hours, surely?
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As tempting as it is, children should never be left in vehicles, even for short periods.
“My advice to parents thinking of leaving a child alone in the car is simple: Don’t do it,” says Will Barsby from Shine Lawyers.
“As a father, I understand why you might not want to disturb a baby or toddler asleep in the backseat when it only takes a few minutes to pay for fuel or pickup a takeaway meal. Unfortunately, a lot can go wrong in that amount of time,” Barsby says.
Those dangers include:
- Dehydration and heat stress. Parked cars can quickly turn into infernos, even with the windows down. It doesn’t take long for a child to start overheating.
- Burns from vinyl and metal fittings, and seatbelt buckles.
- Children playing with car controls like the ignition, handbrake, gears and power windows. And what happens if the driver has forgotten to apply the handbrake?
- Car theft, hijacking, or kidnapping. Imagine the horror if your car was taken with your children still inside?
In Australia, the law and penalties on this issue differ from state to state. In Queensland for example it is a criminal offence to leave a child under the age of 12 unattended in a car, whereas NSW doesn’t specify an age. Here is a summary of the rules.
Following a spate of paramedic call outs to children left in cars, Victoria toughened its laws. The penalties for leaving a child unattended in a car in this southern state are very steep, and include:
- A $4,000 fine, or;
- A maximum of 6 months imprisonment, or
A person who, having the lawful care or charge of a child under 12 years, leaves the child for an unreasonable time without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child during that time commits a misdemeanour.
- Maximum penalty: 3 years’ imprisonment.
NEW SOUTH WALES
A person who leaves any child or young person in the person’s care in a motor vehicle without proper supervision for such period or in such circumstances that:
- The child or young person becomes or is likely to become emotionally distressed, or
- The child’s or young person’s health becomes or is likely to become permanently or temporarily impaired, is guilty of an offence.
A person who has the care or control of a child and who leaves the child in a motor vehicle (as defined in the Road Traffic Act 1974) without proper supervision for such period or in such circumstances that:
1. The child becomes or is likely to become emotionally distressed; or
2. The child’s health becomes or is likely to become permanently or temporarily impaired, is guilty of a crime, and is liable to imprisonment for 5 years.
- Penalty: A fine of $36,000 and imprisonment for 3 years.
Despite the differing laws, most of them require parents to take such steps as they could reasonably be expected to have taken in the circumstances to protect a child from harm. The law then examines whether the person's behaviour was, in the circumstances, so serious that a criminal penalty is warranted.
So, what does this legal jargon mean? Basically, not every act of leaving a child in a car is necessarily a crime in every state.
“Regardless, my advice remains the same. No parent should leave any child alone in their car. Period. It’s just not worth the risk,” says Barsby.
You wouldn’t leave your handbag on the seat of your car, so why do the same with your most precious cargo? Dragging the kids out of a vehicle is inconvenient, but it pales compared to the guilt and regret a parent would feel should something tragic occur.