Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Unlovin' Oven

by Representative Marilyn Lee

In 2004, 1-year-old Aslyn Ryan was left in a hot car while the babysitter ran an errand. She died two days later after suffering from heat stroke. The Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin today reported that Aslyn's parents were awarded $2 million in a lawsuit; they don't expect to collect the money, filing the suit primarily to promote community awareness on this senseless loss of life. I introduced a "Child Endangerment" bill, HB356, in the 2007 session that failed to pass, and I have introduced similar bills over the past five years that were also unsuccessful. The opinion piece below was written at that time. When will we be able to pass this bill? An updated version will be introduced this year. Let's help the Ryan's to educate the community on the dangers of leaving children in cars. Let's not wait until another tragedy to enact legislation that will save children's lives.


Notwithstanding the controversial debate about whether the “Safe Haven” bill is a good idea, most have forgotten that the "Child Endangerment" bill, which makes it unlawful to leave a child under 9-years-old alone in a motor vehicle, failed again this year. Babies and children left alone in motor vehicles in Hawaii demonstrate a shocking chronology since 2003:

1. October 2003—a 10-month-old girl dies after having been “forgotten” in the back seat by her mother for several hours in Kaneohe.
2. February 14, 2005—a 2-year-old Lahaina boy left alone in a parked pickup truck 20 feet from where his parents are standing, manages to put the vehicle in gear, causing the truck to move forward, hitting a woman and a building.
3. March 29, 2005—a 5-month-old girl is left in a parked car with the engine running while her father went into a nearby restaurant to pick up lunch.
4. June 22, 2005—a 4 month old girl is left in a pickup truck with the engine running in front of 7-Eleven. The truck was stolen.
5. August 26, 2005—a 3-year-old boy is accidentally kidnapped when the vehicle in which he was left is stolen.
6. October 2005--two young boys are left alone in a van in Kapolei while Mom went to the bank. Vehicle is stolen.
7. March 2007--3-year old girl dies after being left in a closed car for an hour and a half while Dad went to visit friends.

More shocking than this is the fact that across the nation there were 34 deaths of children in 2001 and 30 deaths of children in 2002 -- left alone in cars where temperatures can rise to an alarming degree in a short while, creating a veritable oven. Moreover, kidnapped children run the risk of torture, sexual abuse or murder.

Under current Hawaii law, if a person leaves a minor alone in a motor vehicle, the person may be facing a misdemeanor offense of endangering the welfare of a minor in the second degree---but only if the person KNOWINGLY endangered the minor. The “knowing” state of mind requires that a person must be practically certain that his act will endanger the physical or mental health of a minor and is very difficult to prove, hence seldom prosecuted.

For that reason, House Bill 356 and its antecedents have been developed over the past 5 years as an “absolute liability” violation resulting in a fine with no requirement to prove “state of mind”. In addition, the driver’s examination would include a question about the law, and rental cars would be required to post notice of the law in the vehicle. One could compare the “absolute liability” violation to our seatbelt law.

Sadly, though, House and Senate conferees have been unable to agree on this bill. It is fairly certain that another injury or death will occur again if there is no enforceable law, or an educational process to warn parents and caregivers about the inherent dangers of this practice. In a recent opinion published by Hawaii’s Intermediate Court of Appeals, Justice Corinne Watanabe provides an exhaustive review of the purpose and use of offenses involving absolute liability, especially their usefulness in preventing conduct, which provides a threat to public safety.

Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder why we have not yet taken action to protect our most precious citizens. In the words of the national organization, KIDS in CARS:

“Would you leave one million dollars in your car?”
“Would you let your child play with a loaded gun?”

This is a no brainer!

At least 12 states have passed legislation which prohibits leaving children alone in motor vehicles. Promoting the safety of children with this simple law and nominal fine may save lives and help to remind parents and caregivers of their sacred and absolute trust.

*term coined by Barbara Mikkelson

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