It’s a dilemma faced by most parents at some point — you’ve got a young child asleep in the back of a car, you’ve just filled up with petrol at the servo, and the time’s come to go inside and pay.
So what do you do now?
Wake the baby and bring them in with you? Or leave them behind for just a minute or two with the window cracked?
This was the question put to followers of ABC Brisbane on Facebook yesterday.
The results were mixed, and it was clear to see there is no straight answer to this.
We did a bit of digging around to find out what the law has to say on the matter:
What does the law say?
In Queensland, the criminal code, section 364a, under the title “Leaving a child under 12 unattended”, states:
- 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.
- Whether the time is unreasonable depends on all the relevant circumstances.
It’s been in Queensland’s criminal code for nearly a decade. Under the previous law parents could only be punished if their unattended child was injured or suffered neglect.
Laws vary in each state and territory:
In Victoria you’ll find “offence to leave child unattended” under section 494 of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005.
It says a person who has the control or charge of a child must not leave the child without making reasonable provision for the child’s supervision and care for a time which is unreasonable having regard to all the circumstances of the case.
In NSW, according to Family and Community Services, there is no actual law that states at what age children can be left alone, but the law is clear about the responsibility of parents to look after their children.
However, anyone who leaves any child or young person in a motor vehicle without proper supervision — potentially or actually causing emotional or physical harm — is guilty of an offence.Take a look at the comments to see what some of our readers had to say about leaving children in the car at fuel stations.
So what does it mean?
“It all has to come down to each individual situation,” Shine Lawyers partner and special counsel Will Barsby said.
“In theory someone may be prosecuted by the police, but the powers are more there to protect children from greater things … things you hear about like a kid left in a hot car while mum and dad are in the casino and the like.
“The law in Queensland all comes down to reasonableness … so leaving kids inside a car for a reasonable period of time to duck in or out really comes down to each individual circumstances.”
Mr Barsby recommended applying a “sensibility test”.
“So can you see your kids, are the windows wound down, is the car close?” he said.
“In that type of situation I would say you have a good argument to say the kid is not unattended because they’re within your sight.
“But of course it’s a bit different if you need to go for a longer period of time.
“I don’t think it’s breaking the law just to pop in. These laws are there to protect kids from greater dangers.
“But when push comes to shove I’d apply that sensibility test.”
For example, Mr Barsby said a parent could argue a child is not unattended if they quickly pop in to pay at a service station and the child’s within their sight.
“But if you’re at the servo and you can see the line is 15 people deep because they’ve been lining up for the cheap fuel, maybe that’s the instance you have to get out, take the two kids with you and line up, or come back another time with someone to help you.”
What does the RACQ recommend?
To make other arrangements, if possible.
“Our advice to parents has always been never leave a child unattended in a car,” Steve Spalding, RACQ’s head of technical and safety policy, said.
“If you have to do errands or go into the the servo or something like that, wherever possible, if it’s practical, make other arrangements to leave the child where they’re safer at home rather than putting them at risk of being unattended in a vehicle.”
In Queensland it goes without saying we have extremely hot temperatures at certain times of the year.
“We know from our own testing that a car can go from ambient to 40 degrees Celsius which is considered the risk point, and it can do that in seven to eight minutes,” Mr Spalding said.
“The scenarios might be unlikely or rare, but if you’ve got a child in a car and you can’t get back into that vehicle, it’s an added problem that if you can avoid it, it’s better to.”
What to do if your child gets locked in a car
Remember to stay calm and think clearly, Queensland’s peak motoring body says.
You can call RACQ — it doesn’t matter whether you’re a member or not.
“If we can get to the car quickly we will,” Mr Spalding said.
“If there’s any concern at all the child is distressed or in danger or anything that looks like they may be suffering from heat exposure, just call emergency services straight away.
“Most cars can be accessed reasonably quickly if you have the right techniques and we certainly do.
“One thing we say certainly never do is try smash a window and get into a car. It’s much more difficult than you think and you can easily injure the child inside or yourself.”
RACQ receives four to five calls every single day to rescue a child locked in a car.
What did social media have to say on the matter?
The ABC Brisbane Facebook page received more than 150 comments from parents arguing for and against bringing their children into the petrol station when it’s time to pay:
“I think they are in more danger getting out of the car. Especially if you have more than one small toddler. Automatic doors and parent trying to pay while kids run loose in the shop or worse get out where cars are moving around. Parents only have one set of hands for Christ’s sake. — Ashlee Cunningham
“Police say take them out, when my friend did this it took time unstrapped and strapping up again, she got abused for holding cars up.” — Pam Davis
“For my older ones (9 and 13), I have no issue with it. I’ll lock the doors and in I go. For my 4yo, no, I’d bring him with me.” — Chris Cox
“It’s hard. I now pay at the pump if I’m with all or the younger ones. When I first had kids I would try my best to fill up at night without kids. Sometimes it just isn’t feasible though.” — Gem Walker
“How times have changed, when we were kids we were often left in the car while mum and dad went to pay. I’m sure though everything that our parents did 30 years ago would now be frowned upon and see child safety called. Funny thing is I’m still here to write this today so obviously wasn’t that badly treated.” — John Kochman
“I never leave my grandson in the car. Would never forgive myself if something happened to him. The car could be rear ended and who knows the consequences.” — Judy Kirby