Every year in the United States, an average of 37 children die of heat stroke after being left in a car.
Florida is second to Texas in the number of such deaths since 1998, but legislation proposed by House Republican Leader Dana Young of Tampa is trying to curb that grim statistic.
The bill (HB 131) that Young intends to push in the January legislative session would allow a passerby to break into a vehicle to rescue children, pets, the elderly and disabled adults who have been left alone and may be in danger. It would provide immunity from being sued, but the passerby would have to call 911 before taking any action.
In the last five years, 15 children in Florida have died in hot cars, according to data from the Department of Children and Families. Such tragedies have killed children as young as 11 months old this year alone.
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“These are tragic incidents and they affect everyone,” said Murray Smith, public information officer for the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, which responded to one of three child deaths this year in Florida, a highly publicized case in Lake City that involved a public defender and assistant state attorney. “In my opinion, one death means not enough has been done.”
Most campaigns to prevent hot-car fatalities are focused on education, reminding parents and caregivers not to leave their loved ones unattended, even on a quick trip into a store.
Young’s bill — the “Good Samaritan Act” — goes a step further, and it loops in other populations, such as the elderly. It was inspired, she said, by the number of deaths that could have been prevented and by stories of people being sued for property damage after saving a person or a pet.
“There is definitely such a sensitivity to our litigious society today because people will actually not act for fear of being sued,” Young said. “It’s a sad state of affairs.”
Smith, who previously worked for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office for 25 years, said that he recommends people call 911 for help, rather than breaking car windows or doors themselves.
“You never know until something’s passed, all the issues it’s going to bring with it,” he said. “You’ve got all these people out here with concealed weapons and all that.”
It’s possible, he said, that someone misinterprets what’s happening and reacts violently when seeing a would-be rescuer breaking into a car. Still, Smith said, he wouldn’t charge someone who broke into a car to rescue someone in need.
Young agrees that calling 911 is the best course of action, stressing that her bill is meant to empower people if the police cannot get to the scene quickly.
In Florida and 18 other states, it’s already illegal to leave an unaccompanied child alone in a car, according to advocacy group KidsAndCars.org. Those in Florida face a misdemeanor charge if they leave a child younger than 6 in a car for 15 minutes. If the child is harmed, it becomes a felony.
Several states, including Florida, allow police and emergency responders to break into a car and rescue a child.
Based on information from KidsAndCars.org, Young’s bill would go further than any other state law in the country by allowing bystanders to intervene or by expanding provisions to include pets, senior citizens and the disabled.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MichaelAuslen.