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Navigating the Ethics of Hot Cars

By Rachel Robison-Greene
14 Aug 2017

Every year, an average of 37 children die from heatstroke as a result of having been trapped in hot vehicles. Statistically, most of these children are under the age of three. These very young children lack either the ability or the knowledge to operate car door handles or to unlock doors. Many of them die in a desperate attempt to escape from the vehicle.  This year, deaths due to children stuck in hot cars reached an all-time high for this point in the year, according to a CNN report, with 29 deaths reported so far.

Hot car deaths are, beyond any doubt, a tragedy. Attempts have been made to find solutions, but there is widespread disagreement about how such prevention measures should go forward.  In 19 states, it is illegal to leave a child unattended in a vehicle.  This approach places the burden of care for the child on the person responsible for the child at the time that they were left unattended. One of the benefits of this type of approach is that many think it locates the moral responsibility for negligence in the right place.  When a person, be it parent or other care provider, takes on the responsibility of care for a child, they become the party responsible for ensuring that the child is safe. The dangers of leaving a child alone in a car at all, let alone a hot vehicle, are now widely known.  Those who advocate for a policy of this type argue that there is no longer a viable lack of knowledge excuse to be made when it comes to these dangers.

Others argue that such policies are unwarranted for a variety of reasons. First, policies of this type ignore crucial practical facts about what it is like to care for children in the real world. In an ideal world, caretakers are never frazzled or absent-minded. They are never caring for more children than they can easily keep track of. But we don’t live in that world. Children are often left in a hot car by simple accident.  Things can escalate very quickly, especially on a hot day.  The approach that makes leaving a child in a hot car illegal is an approach that, many argue, punishes victims. Caretakers are, in almost every case, devastated about the results of their actions.

Others are concerned that “solutions” such as these attack the problem from the wrong end.  In an attempt to deter, this approach punishes those who leave their children in the car after the fact. At this point, the tragedy has already taken place. What we should really be after is a preventative solution—a solution that keeps the child from being left in the car in the first place.

On July 31st, three Democratic senators introduced legislation that would require car manufacturers to equip cars with a sensor that would alert them in the event that they have left a child in the back of a vehicle.  Again, there is widespread disagreement about such an approach. Many think it is a step in the right direction. Manufacturers are now required to take many safety steps (consider, for example, seatbelt and airbag requirements). This constitutes just one more step in the right direction.

Many people object to this kind of approach. First, some object that it locates the moral responsibility for hot car deaths in the wrong place.  Children die in hot cars not because of missteps on the part of the car manufacturer, but because of inadvisable action, whether intentional or unintentional, on the part of the caregiver.  Critics of the mandatory sensor approach are dubious of the idea that car manufacturers should have to incur the costs of hot car-related injuries and deaths.  Manufacturers take on the costs of certain safety features because the occurrence of some number of traffic accidents is inevitable.  Hot car deaths are not similarly inevitable.  Caregivers simply must exercise more caution.

Others are critical about any level of state interference in this matter. Critics of this type are concerned that state intervention here constitutes a step toward a “nanny state” in which the government is too involved in fundamentally private matters, such as the way that we rear our children.  There are all sorts of dangers out there that parents and their children face.  Though tragic, deaths caused in this way are fairly rare. In fact, more people die from being struck by lightning in the United States each year than die from being left in a hot car.  Some don’t want this much government intervention, especially when it comes to events that are not statistically likely to occur. If we allow government to interfere when it comes to events that are so unlikely to occur, in what other private matters will they be justified in interfering?

In many states, it is legal, at least under certain conditions, for someone to break into a vehicle if they observe that a child or an animal has been left unattended inside.  In some states, that person must be a law enforcement officer, but other states have “good Samaritan laws” that allow private citizens to do the same.  This kind of policy has obvious benefits—lives can be saved.  On the other hand, it leaves decisions about whether to destroy expensive personal property in the hands of people who may not have all the facts and may not share the car owner’s values.  

It may strike many as fairly obvious that there should be some preventative measures in place to prevent human children from being left in hot vehicles. There isn’t the same level of agreement about the role that the state should play when it comes to leaving non-human animals in hot vehicles.  Some argue that pets are property, and that people should be allowed by the state to do what they want with property. Others argue that suffering is morally relevant, regardless of the species of the entity that is experiencing it. The suffering of a dog, for example, should be treated no differently from the suffering of a human being. If a dog experiences the pain of heatstroke, steps should be taken to prevent dogs from experiencing that pain.

Rachel is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. Her research interests include the nature of personhood and the self, animal minds and animal ethics, environmental ethics, and ethics and technology. She is the co-host of the pop culture and philosophy podcast I Think Therefore I Fan.
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