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Ask a Trooper: Can I Leave My Child Unattended in the Car, Even For Just a Minute?

Washington State Patrol District 1 spokesman and recruiter Guy Gill answers your questions about the rules of the road.

Q: Can I leave my child unattended in the car while I return a shopping cart or drop something off inside? It'll only take a minute.

A: It is unlawful for any person, while operating or in charge of a vehicle, to leave a minor child or children under 16 years old unattended in the vehicle. It is also illegal to park or willfully allow your vehicle to stand on a public highway or in a public place with its motor running, with a minor under 16 unattended in the vehicle.

Any person violating this section is guilty of a misdemeanor. Upon a second or subsequent conviction for a violation of this section, the department shall revoke the operator's license of such person.

My advice… Don’t do it!  You just never know who you could be parked next to or around and it’s not even worth taking a chance. 

Trooper Guy Gill is the Washington State Patrol recruiter and spokesman for District 1, covering Pierce and Thurston counties. Follow him at @wspd1pio on Twitter. 

What have you always wanted to ask a state patrol officer? Tell us in the comments. 

Cosmo January 28, 2013 at 09:45 PM
I hope you aren't letting your 15 year old drive around by himself with just a permit. He needs to be with a licensed driver of at least 5 years experience which would make that other person an adult.
Tia Berry January 28, 2013 at 10:21 PM
Cosmo, I don't think that is what momofthree said. A 15 year old who by law (and a valid drivers permit) is allowed to operate a vehicle with a driver who has 5years or more driving experience, is not allowed to wait in a vehicle (that does not have the motor running) alone in public.
k January 28, 2013 at 10:27 PM
Please post a follow-up with the RCW, or stop misrepresenting the law. Everything I have found says you cannot leave a child in the car while it is running, with keys, or while in an establishment that sells alcohol. It says nothing about locking well behaved children in a car without keys for 30-seconds while returning a shopping cart. Unbelievable! I'd fight this officer in court without a second thought.
Damon Adams January 28, 2013 at 10:42 PM
There are two Washington state laws that apply to leaving children in a parked vehicle. Each has a specific factor, however, that limits its application. The first is (RCW indicates Revised Code of Washington): RCW 9.91.060 Leaving children unattended in parked automobile. Every person having the care and custody, whether temporary or permanent, of minor children under the age of twelve years, who shall leave such children in a parked automobile 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 shall be guilty of a gross Misdemeanor. This code section applies only when the driver is leaving the person to go to a place where alcohol is served and does not otherwise apply. The second code section is: RCW 46.61.685 Leaving children unattended in standing vehicle with motor running — Penalty. (1) It is unlawful for any person, while operating or in charge of a vehicle, to park or willfully allow such vehicle to stand upon a public highway or in a public place with its motor running, leaving a minor child or children under the age of sixteen years unattended in the vehicle. (2) Any person violating this section is guilty of a misdemeanor. Upon a second or subsequent conviction for a violation of this section, the department shall revoke the operator's license of such person. Notice that this code applies only when the motor is left running.
Damon Adams January 28, 2013 at 10:44 PM
Oh and for those who want to fight this in court, you are wasting your time and money, and you will end up losing. Good luck with that
Tom CF January 28, 2013 at 10:45 PM
I can let my kids walk to school alone, but I can't leave them in a locked car for 5 minutes?
Trooper Guy Gill January 28, 2013 at 11:03 PM
Hi k...Here it is. RCW 46.61.685 Leaving children unattended in standing vehicle with motor running. The question did not indicate if the vehicle was left running or not so I erred on the side of caution (as I always will). Honestly, this is kind of a common sense thing...responsible parents should know if it’s a good idea or not to leave their child alone in a non-running vehicle for 30 seconds to return a shopping cart. I think we can all agree it’s probably not a good idea for some kids to be left alone even for a short time and for other kids it might not be a big deal. Parents should know best and make that call. I hope that helps!
AC January 28, 2013 at 11:15 PM
Huh? In November the Redmond Patch had an article written by Malia Kawaguchi that stated it is illegal for children under age 8 to be in a car unless supervised by someone over the age of 12. Children over 8 are okay to be alone in the car. Please clarify.
Twistedlimbs January 28, 2013 at 11:19 PM
I'd feel safer with my kids locked in the car while I return my shopping cart than troll them along across the busy parking lot (have you BEEN to Trader Joe's recently?) to do it with them in tow. I'd never leave the car running.
Jennifer Ordway January 28, 2013 at 11:29 PM
I think the thing we are missing in all this is that they are talking about a CAR...not a house. You can leave your older kids to themselves at home, but there are too many risks of them being in the car unattended. The worst thing is car-jacking of course, but what if the car suffered some damage from another vehicle while you were gone? Fires, unintended starts, etc. My kids play with the gear shift pretending to be a race care driver and could easily put it in gear. It's not about their responsibility, it's about everyone else's. I would put my $$ on your kid over every adult out there most days!
R.Mao January 29, 2013 at 12:32 AM
Does anyone know if someone took this to court does a judge have the right to "interpret" the law? And therefore his/ her ruling might not be in your favor depending on age of child, whether or not its 90 degrees, etc etc. It just never seemed right to me. My child previously attended Montessori Children's House in Redmond and one of their teachers in training did this, not for a few seconds, but for a good stretch of time. I withdrew my kid for that and many other reasons.
Malia Kawaguchi January 29, 2013 at 01:04 AM
Yup, I'm confused. The City of Redmond ordinance is written like this "10.52.215 Leaving unattended children in parked or standing vehicles. No person, while operating or in charge of a motor vehicle, shall park or wilfully allow such vehicle to stand upon a public street, public way or in a public place open to the public, leaving any child or children under the age of eight years unattended therein. For the purposes of this section, “unattended” means where no responsible person over twelve years of age is physically present in such vehicle and has immediate control over such child or children or the person operating or in charge of such vehicle is not in the immediate vicinity where such child or children can be seen or heard by such person. Violations shall be punished as provided in Section 1.01.110 of this code. (Ord. 646 § § 1, 2, 1974)." It pretty clearly states "under the age of eight" and "over twelve years of age." If there's a state law that says 16, it's odd that Redmond doesn't know that... Can you clarify, Trooper Gill?
SuburbianMama January 29, 2013 at 03:09 AM
It's fine if the Officer wants to make err on the side of caution when answering the question but he needs to state his assumption in his answer. I agree with "k" that the response was misleading. More useful would have been to include the RCWs as "Damon Adams" did. And also useful would have been for the Officer to point out that leaving kids of any age in a non-running) car and while not in a tavern is technically legal (since not addressed by the law), other laws (such as those for child neglect/abuse) could apply. The Officer also could have mentioned that folks should be aware that if they do leave their kids in the car, they run the risk of a concerned citizen calling the police or CPS b/c they think the parent is being negligent/abusive and, therefore, it may just not be worth the time they think they're saving.
MK January 29, 2013 at 03:24 AM
The issue seems to involve something other than everyone here is thinking about...(1) more than likely the people reacting herein are careful parents and their judgment is be be trusted for their circumstances; (2) the jurisdication your vehicle is parked in Redmond vs. other jurisdiction/applicable laws comes into play; and (3) the circumstances that would cause a law to be used against you....local, State and/or Federal needs to be remembered. Most important: something serious would have occurred in and/or around the car for a law to come into play...in which case, a good parent would be struggling with much more serious issues than five minutes to put the shopping cart away and some authority giving a ticket resulting in a jurisdication-appropriate judge being part of the process! BTW, my husband is stroke-impaired and cannot protect himself. I cannot leave him in a car unattended (much like a child) because there is no way for him to protect himself from the unknown and it is not enough for me to lock him into an non-running vehicle for five minutes (or less/or more). He is defensless and that is how I see children too (given the unknown). Here is my question: Why is everyone so eager to "attack" about such things?
cR January 29, 2013 at 06:07 AM
People who actually take the time to read the "Washington Drivers Guide" wouldn't have to ask a trooper stupid questions like this. All the rules and laws of the road are in there. http://www.dol.wa.gov/driverslicense/docs/driverguide-en.pdf
John Snow January 29, 2013 at 03:24 PM
As I read it, it is with the motor running and the child inside, unattended.
John Snow January 29, 2013 at 03:26 PM
Not with the engine running!
Shannon Vaughn January 29, 2013 at 04:08 PM
When I researched the state rcw's on this..The only thing it said was that it was illegal to leave a child under 12 in a car alone when parked in front of an establishment that sells liquor. As far as the motor running portion, I have a car with auto start - I will get out, lock the doors and start the car to keep it warm when I run in to grab my mail. Their is no way they could make the car move without the keys.
MK January 29, 2013 at 07:48 PM
tavern RCW is separate from other RCW posted by Trooper (see above); risk to child in running (or not running car) is not limited to someone attempting to steal the car but that is something each of us has to manage
Richard Oh January 29, 2013 at 11:13 PM
How did I survive childhood without all these laws to protect me? it's a miracle I tell you!
webbish6 January 29, 2013 at 11:25 PM
It isn't the seventies any more, that's for sure! Colbert did a funny bit on this - when adults used to drive while smoking with the windows rolled up...riding bicycles with no helmets...stacked in the back seats of cars with no seat belts or the back of a pickup truck...exciting times back then!
Jeanne Gustafson January 29, 2013 at 11:38 PM
That takes me back, webbish6. My pops used to smoke back in those 70s days, and he kindly rolled down the front window, but the back window was open, too (no AC), so the ashes came flying right back in. But really, at least half of us were way back in the "monkey box" of the old station wagon, flying around with the dog and no seat belts in sight.
another mom January 30, 2013 at 04:47 PM
webbish6 and Jeanne -- yay! Sharing memories! (You do know the older we get, the more we'll be inclined to do so, right?) My parents had a '57 Chevy. It had a child seat (plywood booster chair, with back and arms, built by my clever papa) and a child restraint system (both parents flinging their arms in front of me to keep me from going through the windshield). My favorite drive was when mama would take me on a particular street with lots of ups and downs and hit the gas -- I'm betting she went all of 30 -- so that my tummy would get the elevator feeling. The next car was the wagon, and Jeanne, boy - you nailed the fying around with the dog and no seatbelts perfectly!
Lauren Padgett (Editor) January 31, 2013 at 07:20 AM
Maybe this question was unfair for Trooper Gill, whose main jurisdiction is our freeways. When State Patrol responds to calls of a child left alone in a car on a busy highway, that becomes a completely different issue than if an officer cruises through a parking lot and spots a teenager left alone in the car playing on their cell phone. I think we all should keep in mind that while he's referring to is on a broader scale and local jurisdiction might have more lax rules on these things. Sure, you can leave a kid in the car while you run into 7-11. I was left in the car most of the time when I was a kid and I preferred it that way! (I think my mom did too!) But Trooper Gill says it right - be cautious. I remember the case of the mother in Puyallup who left her car running outside a daycare with her infant strapped in a car seat, and was then carjacked. That's always the big WHAT IF moment... but it happens. Unfortunately.
Been there January 31, 2013 at 07:37 PM
Nope. Too many nuts out there today.
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Michael Tammy Marciniak July 15, 2013 at 04:16 PM
No who asked these questions!!!!!!!!!!
Michael Tammy Marciniak July 15, 2013 at 04:17 PM
Use common sense people.
pkeith1 July 24, 2013 at 12:11 PM
A totally different topic: traffic laws as it relates to the rules of turning: The Drivers Guide; Turning section under General rules states that you are required to turn into the nearest lane whether making a right or left turn yet, consistently, drivers seem to turn into any lane they'd like. When there are multiple lanes they often choose the farthest lane. This behavior seems consistent whether drivers are turning right onto the new roadway, or left from a light. Although it is dangerous to everyone else drivers seem to be unaware and often belligerent about choosing whichever lane they'd like. Is there actually a law that requires turning into the nearest lane and if so why is it not enforced? One local police officer told me that they let things like this slide when they are the "local custom" in the jurisdiction??? Can you help? What is the law?
Kelly Semmler-Cooper February 15, 2014 at 03:42 AM
I have to say I was appalled to find out a mother who has an infant (my guess about 4-6 months) could walk into a Papa Murphy's with her back to the window the entire time and leave said child in car. I came to the spot next to this car saw the infant and called 911.. all the while looking into the store and there were at least 5 people that came out and did not claim the car or child! The woman came out and I asked if she was crazy and she told me she wasn't going to discus this with me and I told her she can talk to the cops. She argued and said she would not stay and to that I told her fine the 911 operator had her Lic plate # and description of the car! When the cops arrived I was told that because the car was in the line of sight and not running it was not an issue. I was also told they would review the persons info to make sure there were not prior reports.... as I sais even though the store had a glass front to it.. and I was glaring inside at everyone.... SHE NEVER TURNED AROUND!!! SHE NEVER CHECKED ON HER CHILD and it was approx 10-15 minutes that I was standing there.... I just believe this is not safe and so not worth he risk... maybe as a parent you would feel differently ... I think what the worse part was there was no guilt there was no after thought she just stared at me with an icy cold stare ... but I can guarantee in this busy parking lot off a busy highway if something were to happen it would have been a different story!

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