Is it illegal to leave a child in the car?

It can be illegal to leave a child alone in a car, but it depends on the circumstances and on the authorities' discretion.

Technically speaking, you are allowed to leave a child alone in a car, but you can be arrested or charged if you do so in such a way that endangers the child.

Most states and territories are quite vague about what this means, using terms like "unreasonable amount of time" or "likely to become emotionally distressed".

So leaving a 7-year-old in the car park with the windows rolled down can be viewed quite differently to doing the same thing with a newborn, and it comes down to the discretion of law enforcement and other authorities.

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It's never a good idea to leave a child alone in a car, even if it's not illegal. A good rule of thumb is to never leave a child alone in a car unless it's more hazardous to take them out.

You might think it's no big deal to leave a 7-year old in the car while you pop into the servo to pay but you don't want to take any chances, especially in such a high-traffic area.

How child laws compare across 8 states and territories in Australia

Here's how the laws differ from state to state. Be careful, because a conviction can land you thousands in fines and even jail time depending on your state and how bad the offence is.

StateChild ageLimit (minutes)Details
NSW0-17No limitNot allowed to leave them in a motor vehicle if it could cause them harm or emotional distress.
VIC0-16No limitNot allowed to be anywhere unattended for an unreasonable amount of time.
QLD0-11No limitNot allowed to be anywhere unattended for an unreasonable amount of time.
WA0-17No limitNot allowed to leave them in a motor vehicle if it could cause them harm or emotional distress.
TAS0-17No limitNot allowed to be anywhere unattended for an unreasonable amount of time.
SA0-15No limitNot allowed to leave them in dangerous situations where they end up suffering harm.
ACT0-11No limitNot allowed to leave them anywhere unattended if they are likely to become injured or sick.
NT0-15No limitNot allowed to leave them in dangerous situations.

Important: How should parents or guardians interpret these vague laws?

At the end of the day, it is up to law enforcement, courts and other authorities to determine whether or not you have put a child in danger. So even if the laws are vague around leaving children alone in the car, that doesn't mean you can act in a way that could potentially harm your children.

You really need to use your best judgement and avoid leaving your children alone in the car whenever possible.

Should you rescue an unattended child who you think is in danger?

Every state and territory except Queensland has some form of a "good Samaritan" law that protects you from getting sued if you injure someone by trying to save them. However, that doesn't mean busting out the window is the best first step if you see a child who might be in danger.

You should take the following steps before you do anything drastic:

  1. Make sure the child is really at risk. If the child appears alright for the time being, you may just want to wait near the car until the child's parent or guardian comes back.
  2. Try the doors. If you think the child is at risk, try the doors before you bust out the window. It could save you a lot of grief.
  3. Dial 000. Police and paramedics are better trained than you are at conducting a rescue. Even if you're sure they'll never make it in time, they can still help guide you through the rescue if it's needed.

What is considered a dangerous situation

The laws don't define what they mean by dangerous, there are some situations that clearly pose a threat to young children left alone in a car. Here are a few:

  • It's hot outside. Researchers have found that on a 35-degree day, the temperature inside a car reaches an average of 47 degrees within one hour, with the dashboard reaching an average of 57 degrees. Cracked windows and parking in the shade won't help.
  • It's in a bad area of town. Exposing a child of any age to potential threat, harassment, taunting and violence can have a negative impact on their development, or worse.
  • The child is very young. Newborns, infants and toddlers cannot care for themselves and should not be left alone in a car under any circumstances.
  • The car is illegally parked. This puts children of all ages at additional risk in the form of a traffic accident.

Can I get in trouble if I try to save a child who's been left alone in a car?

In most states, good Samaritan laws protect you if something goes wrong while trying to save a child from harm, as long as you were acting in "good faith".

There's no good Samaritan law in Queensland, so you could technically be sued if you damaged something or injured someone while trying to save a child in that state. However, there's never been a case of someone being sued in Queensland for any such event.

Will car insurance cover me if someone breaks into my car?

Yes, either third-party fire and theft (TPFT) or comprehensive cover would protect you if someone broke into your car.

However, neither CTP nor third-party property would do the trick. If you have one of these lower-level policies and want to be covered for break-ins, theft and similar damages, talk to your insurer about upgrading to either TPFT or comprehensive cover.

What to do if you get in trouble for leaving a child in the car

If you are arrested or charged with a crime related to leaving a child unattended in your car, your best bet is to contact a lawyer. The laws can be somewhat vague, so you'll need someone on your side who is experienced at dealing with these types of legal issues.

Are laws the same for pets as they are for children?

Laws related to pets can be just as murky as those related to children. No laws specifically prohibit you from leaving your pets in the car. However, most states do have animal cruelty laws that could land you in hot water if you left the pet alone in a motor vehicle under dangerous circumstances.

No state's good Samaritan laws extend to pets, so you could get sued if you try to save someone's else's pet and end up injuring the pet or damaging the person's car.

Bottom line

Although most states don't have laws specifically related to leaving children alone in a motor vehicle, most do have laws against leaving children unattended in situations that could cause them harm.

Therefore, leaving a child alone in a vehicle is probably not worth the risk to your child's safety or the risk of being charged with a crime.

Picture: Shutterstock

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