December 24, 2011 in Washington Voices

Illegal to lock kids in cars

Problem of unattended children left in vehicles besets city
By The Spokesman-Review
Tips to avoid accidental lock-ins

Fire department officials and auto clubs offer these tips to avoid accidental lock-ins of children in a car.

- Keep a spare key in a purse or wallet or place a hide-a-key somewhere under the vehicle.

- Always take children with you – even if you intend to leave the car only for a brief time.

- Keep the keys with the driver – never leave them with the child, in the ignition, or place them on a car seat.

- Never let children play with keys or access an unattended vehicle.

- Check the vehicle is empty before remote locking – it is easy to make a mistake and accidentally lock children in.

- If kids are locked in a car, keep calm and call 911 immediately.

Every week the Spokane Valley Fire Department usually gets at least one call reporting a young child locked inside a vehicle.

It’s a phenomenon that baffles Assistant Fire Marshal Bill Clifford. Some people accidentally lock their door before closing it, but some people do it deliberately, he said. “I would guess that the majority are accidental,” he said.

It’s the deliberate incidents that are particularly troubling to Clifford. “I would never leave my child in a running vehicle and run into a store,” Clifford said. “It’s just not worth it. That drives me crazy.”

Firefighters responded to a call for a 5-year-old child left locked inside a running car outside a department store on Dec. 4. They unlocked the car and had the car’s owner paged, Clifford said. She arrived outside to say she had just gone in for a minute, but there was plenty of time for someone to spot the child, call 911 and for firefighters to respond.

According to Washington State law, it is a misdemeanor to leave a child under the age of 16 unattended in a car with the motor running. It’s a gross misdemeanor to leave a child under the age of 12 in a parked car if the parent or other responsible adult goes inside a bar or other business that serves alcohol.

Luckily it’s a relatively easy for firefighters to get inside locked cars and all of them are required to complete training on how to do it. “All of the trucks have tools for unlocking vehicles,” he said. “We have these coat hanger-looking tools with a hook on them. If we’re not able to unlock the car in a reasonable amount of time, we break the window. That doesn’t happen often. I can’t even thing of one instance when we’ve done it.”

The fire department sometimes gets as many as three or four such lock out calls a week. “We’re surprised at the weeks when there are no lockouts,” Clifford said.

The department also responds to rescue pets locked inside vehicles in some emergency situations. “We have in certain circumstances, but usually it’s animal control,” he said.

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