All 50 states have "Good Samaritan Laws" on the books, but what they allow varies
For the second time this summer, Kimberly Wells of Lockport, IL, has left her kids in the car with the windows rolled up, while she goes drinking at a bar.
The first time this occurred was on June 29th. According to patch.com/illinois, Wells was caught in Joliet at the Crow's Nest Tavern, as her two children, aged 2 and 3 were left in her car. The inside of the car was covered in trash, and the children were not fully clothed.
Despite the fact that the police arrested Wells, she was released on bond, as child endangerment is not a felony offense.
Less than a month later, Kimberly Wells was arrested once again. As in the previous incident, Joliet police received a report that two children were trapped inside a car. When police arrived on the scene, they found the car with its ignition off. The inside of the car was again completely squalid, and the windows were rolled up.
This time, the children were placed into the custody of another family member, but Wells was again released on bond.
When I read this story, it made me think about the heat wave rolling across the US.
At current, over one-third of Americans find themselves under heat advisories, or excessive heat warnings. Within the next seven days, the National Weather Service warns that approximately 80% of the United States population will see temperatures reach above ninety degrees.
Heat like this is deadly, and for children or pets trapped in cars, this risk increases tenfold. According to the Department of Transportation, a child's body temperature rises more quickly than adults -- three to five times faster. Heatstroke begins when the body reaches approximately 104 degrees; at 107 degrees, a child could die.
In 10 minutes, a car with its ignition off and windows rolled up can heat by 20 degrees. A child could die within minutes.
All 50 states have "Good Samaritan Laws" on the books. However, their rules and regulations vary. Safe Kids Worldwide conducted a poll, asking adults if they would break the windows of a car if they noticed a child was sitting inside. Many of the adults answered no. Why? They were afraid of any lawsuits that they might be hit with for damaging someone else's property. Safe Kids Worldwide also provides an interactive map of the United States. By clicking on each state, a viewer can determine if a "good samaritan" would be protected from lawsuits in the event of trying to save a child trapped in a car.
I clicked on each state, and Washington DC, and found that 25 states do not provide immunity to those who rescue a child from an overheated car -- including many states in the south and west with the highest temperatures. There was no discernible pattern I could see in which states provided that coverage and which states didn't -- the yeses and nos were both patchworked all over the map.
Further, even the states that provide this protection don't necessarily provide it for all forms of life. For example, while 26 states do provide this immunity for rescuing children, only 14 provide that same immunity for rescuing pets. These states are Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
I would like to believe that protecting a living being in all cases is more important than protecting a vehicle, but the law does not necessarily make that same claim. It would be best if all states would protect bystanders in this way.
What we can do to prevent hot car deaths
Parents and Caregivers: place an important item (your purse, your laptop, etc) in the backseat of the car with your child. When your mind is running at 100 mph, it can be easy to forget that you brought your child or pet with you on the car ride -- especially if this is a variation in your normal routine. But, if you're going to work or the store, even if you forget to take your bag or laptop out of the backseat, you're more likely to realize quickly that you need to go back out to the car to get it. Anything that will force you to look in the backseat of your car before leaving it is a good thing. Some cars now even have a built-in mechanism that will chime when you turn off the ignition, reminding you to look in the back seat.
Passersby: keep your car locked. Children are curious and they like to run around and play -- there have been cases of children dying in cars that they climbed into themselves while playing neighborhood games. Call 9-1-1 immediately if you see a child or a pet in the car with the windows rolled up. If the child or animal looks to be in distress, it needs to be removed from the car as quickly as possible.
Everyone: don't bring your child along to the bar with you, leaving them in the car so you can go drinking. Don't be like Kimberly Wells.