Kids and Pets Left in Hot Cars: What Can You Do?


Where and when it’s legally acceptable to break a car’s windows — and how to do it

dogs don't want a hot car death!
9 min read

The interior temperature of a parked car sitting in the sun on a 78-degree day can reach 120 degrees in minutes, and on a 90-degree day it takes fewer than 10 minutes for the interior temperature to reach 160 degrees. These temperatures are life-threatening, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The bodies of small children and pets do not cool as well as those of older children and adults, and heatstroke can cause life-threatening injuries in minutes, at a temperature of just 104 degrees. Most of us, we’d like to believe, would immediately intervene if we saw a small child or a dog locked in hot cars and in clear distress, despite laws and consequences.

But what if you open your door in a crowded parking lot to see a dog or a child appearing to rest easy? What if it isn’t that hot of a day? What if you might’ve seen the responsible adult duck into a nearby store, appearing to hustle? What should you do then? And yet, what if your gut tells you the child or pet is in danger — what’s your move then?

'Breaking a window to save a life is not a criminal act,' says one lawmaker.

According to an Ohio lawmaker, you’ve got to trust your gut: there’s no specific temperature or amount of time a concerned bystander can measure when deciding whether to intervene, but if it’s a hot day, the windows are up, and the driver is nowhere in sight, time is often of the essence. Maj. C.J. Stantz of the Stark County Sheriff’s Department in Ohio told CantonRep.com, “There’s never a time when a baby can be left in a car. And if an animal’s panting hard or laying down and not moving, and you knock on the window and the animal doesn’t move, it’s likely in distress.” Though the particulars of laws vary across the country, intent is taken into consideration when law enforcement brings criminal charges; in the opinion of one officer of the law, Stantz, “breaking a window to save a life is not a criminal act.”

Civil disputes are another matter, however, and many states have been enacting legislation aimed at protecting concerned bystanders from financial (and legal) consequences if they intervene to prevent a hot car death.

kid playing with car

Good Samaritan Laws by State

It might surprise you to learn–as it certainly surprised us–that freeing an overheated child or pet from a vehicle isn’t expressly legal everywhere in the U.S., and if you take action, you could be held financially (and even legally) accountable.

The Animal Legal Defense League writes that 21 states have laws on the books that outlaw leaving pets in cars unattended–and you can never legally leave a baby in a car unattended. But even in the states with “hot car” laws protecting pets, concerned bystanders who break into a car to save them are rarely expressly protected by the law.

In 2014, Tennessee became the first U.S. state to protect people from liability if they break into a car to save a child. The following year, Tennessee added a provision for pets. Today, just a handful of states have passed Good Samaritan laws protecting people who break into cars in “good-faith efforts” to protect children and pets from imminent harm:

  • In March of this year, Florida passed a law allowing bystanders to break into parked cars to save “pets and vulnerable people.”
  • The Ohio legislature recently passed three laws allowing bystanders to break into vehicles to rescue children and pets they believe are in imminent danger. The laws won’t be effective until August of this year, though.
  • Virginia passed a law in 2015 protecting people from liability for saving children from hot cars, but no such protection yet exists for those saving pets in the Old Dominion.
  • Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Indiana have also passed legislation protecting citizens from civil liabilities for rescuing children from hot cars.
  • Missouri’s legislature recently passed a Good Samaritan law protecting people who rescue children from hot cars against civil action.

Lawmakers in several other states have proposed similar bills, but civil and criminal protection for people breaking into cars to perform a rescue is hardly the norm in the U.S. Further, most of the above laws offer civil protections–meaning you can’t be sued for rescuing someone in good faith effort–but not criminal protections. Not every state law protects people from criminal repercussions, but as we noted above, law enforcement would have to charge you, which in cases like these is unlikely.

Note that in most cases, there are some stipulations to the above laws. Bystanders must:

  1. Make sure the car is actually locked
  2. Call 911
  3. Only use “necessary force”
  4. Stay with the rescued person or animal until authorities arrive

So if the occasion calls for it, here’s what you do next:

How to Break a Car’s Windows:

There’s a device for easily breaking windows: a small car Hammer, of which there are several types. These can come in handy if you need to rescue a child or a pet from a hot car, and here’s how they work:

But you can also use everyday items to break a car’s windows in the event of an emergency.

Owners of a Kansas glass shop explain the mechanics of breaking a car’s windows: they say choose a window farthest from the child or pet, aim for the edges of the window, as the middle is the strongest part. Items with sharp edges, like screwdrivers or hammers (the claw side, rather than the blunt side) work best for sharply tapping and breaking the glass.

Also consider how to use a car’s headrest to break a window, and how to use a piece of porcelain (from a partially-shattered spark plug) to easily break a car’s window.

The gist: blunt objects are not great at shattering car window glass, so understanding what will work is important. And the good news: it doesn’t take a lot of strength to break a car’s window, just smarts.

every year many children suffer a hot car death

Lifesaving Tech to Prevent Hot Car Death

The stats show that an average of 37 children’s lives are claimed each year from auto-related heat stroke. New tech offers safe solutions to prevent unfortunate accidents like these from happening:

  • The Smart Clip prototype was displayed at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and was developed by Intel. Out of that research came the 3D-printed Smart Clip, accompanied with smartphone app. The bluetooth-enabled device reports on car temperature and the clip’s own remaining battery power. But, the most captivating feature is that of the tech’s ability to send alerts when the smartphone goes out of range. This alert works as a reminder to busy parents that the child is still in the car. Unlike some other devices that work with an FOB or other electronic keychain that can be easily misplaced, the Smart Clip works right from your phone.
  • Pacif-i looks like a normal pacifier but is actually a high-tech device that sends your child’s temperature straight to its supplemental app on your smartphone. This tech could potentially be problematic in the car if it falls out of the child’s mouth, but is also a much more versatile and portable device.
  • Another temperature-tracker that is actually wearable is the TempTraq, “the first and only 24-hour intelligent thermometer that continuously senses, records, and sends alerts of a child’s temperature to your mobile device.” In addition to helping prevent what could potentially be a seriously scary situation in the car, this patch worn under your child’s arm could also function at home to watch for potential sickness.

This year, GMC introduced a ‘Rear Seat Reminder’ as a standard feature to its 2017 Acadia SUV, reports The Today Show. An industry first, the feature activates when the rear doors are opened, and when the engine turns off, a voice message reminds drivers to check the back seat.

Preventing Emergencies

In hot weather, remember that when it comes to vulnerable beings like children and pets, there’s no such thing as “just running in for a second.” Tragedies happen in an instant, so protect those closest to you and never leave anyone in a parked car alone. And to prevent accidentally leaving a small child in a car, follow these tips from KidsAndCars.org:

  • When you get into your car, put your handbag, employee ID badge or cell phone on the floorboard in front of the child. That will make you open the back door when you arrive at your destination.
  • Keep a stuffed animal in your child’s car seat and place it in the passenger seat whenever you’re driving around. It’s a cue your child is in the back.
  • Ask your babysitter or child care provider to call you if your child hasn’t arrived on time.

*Post updated August 2016.