In order to better ensure child safety, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill on Feb. 29 that would make it illegal for parents or guardians to leave children under the age of 8 alone in a motor vehicle. Multiple infractions would constitute a misdemeanor.
The bill applies to any person legally charged with care of a child and states that they cannot be left alone or with anyone under the age of 12, “under conditions which would knowingly or recklessly present a significant risk to the health or safety of the child.”
Those found guilty of an infraction would be fined no more than $50 for the first violation, no more than $100 for a second infraction within 18 months of the first, and no more than $250 for a third, but at that point it would be a misdemeanor and the person would have to appear in court.
“It is our job to protect our children,” state Sen. Shirley Huntley (D-Jamaica) said in a prepared statement announcing its passage. “By passing this legislation we are going to great lengths in saving all New Yorkers from unnecessary and unintentional pain and injury that can be felt from leaving a child unattended.”
But what critics consider the vague nature of the bill, its penalties, and its possible real purpose raise questions about its value.
For example the violation fees for leaving a child unattended may actually be less than the penalty for leaving a pet alone in a motor vehicle in conditions of extreme cold or heat without proper ventilation, which may endanger its life.
The animal law calls for a fine of between $50 and $100 for the first offense and between $100 and $250 for the second infraction.
Tanya Cruz, chairwoman of Community Board 13’s Transportation Committee, panned the child safety bill for several reasons including fines that she considers too low and a lack of clarity on how it would be enforced.
She believes that police officers should be mandated to take safety training to enable them to judge when an infraction has occurred. She also questioned how one would be able to determine a child’s age since it is unlikely that the parent would have the youngster’s birth certificate on hand.
And, she said, it appears the point of the bill is to bring in money from tickets.
“The bill is not worded well and leaves a lot of room for the parent to defend what they did,” Cruz said, adding, “It does seem like a revenue maker because the fines are too low.”
Steve Epps, a retired police officer and resident of St. Albans, had similar concerns, stating that the bill doesn’t differentiate between parents who leave a child in a car for a few minutes while they run into a grocery store to get a quart of milk and drug addicts who leave their vehicle to buy narcotics and completely forget the child was with them.
“It leaves too much room for abuse by the city and leaves it to the cop’s opinion as to what to look for,” Epps said. “It seems like a revenue maker to me.”
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who cosponsored the bill, disagreed, stating that he believes officers are well trained to make the call and adding that he would have not given it his support if he thought the purpose was to make money.
“I would be the first to criticize it, if that were the case,” Avella said. “The idea is insulting to the whole purpose behind the bill.”
The legislation cites data from the journal Pediatrics that shows between 1998 and 2004, 230 children in the United States died of hyperthermia — overheating — from being left in cars. Those victims were all 15 or younger. In 2005, there were 19 deaths by mid-summer for the same reason and simply cracking the windows has little effect on the interior temperature.
Studies show, according to the bill, that when outdoor temperatures range from 72 to 96 degrees, the temperature inside of a vehicle rises approximately 19 degrees in the first ten minutes, 29 degrees after 20 minutes, 34 degrees after 30 minutes and 43 degrees after 60 minutes.
“Leaving a child in a motor vehicle unattended is a risk which has proven time and time again to be dangerous,” Huntley said. “We need to make sure parents and guardians alike know what the risk factors are associated with this and are aware of the potential consequences.”
State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Whitestone), who voted in favor of the bill, said that while it isn’t ideal, it would introduce into the law a category of child endangerment that has been lacking.
“The imperfect is better than nothing,” Stavisky. “As long as the concept is in statute, you can improve it later on.”
She said she planned to speak to the legislator who introduced the bill, state Sen. Stephen Saland (D-Poughkeepsie), this week to ask him if he could make the language of the bill a lot clearer to address the issues raised by critics interviewed for this article, including increasing the penalties for infractions. Saland could not be reached for comment.
A companion bill is cosponsored by Assemblywomen Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village) and Grace Meng (D-Flushing), and Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck) in Queens, and is before the Transportation Committee.