Story, Graphic and Photo by Tosha Baker
Kentucky lawmakers are negotiating a bill that would provide civil immunity to a person who damages or enters a vehicle to save a child’s life.
Civil immunity could be used as a tool for communities to lessen any hesitation for citizens to act when they see a child in danger, said sponsor of the bill, Kentucky District 2 Sen. Danny Carroll.
“If it helps one child and keeps one child from having medical issues, it was worth it,” Carroll said.
In order to receive civil immunity under Senate Bill 16, the person who decides to intervene must:
- Have a reasonable, good faith belief that the minor is in imminent danger of harm.
- Use no more force than is reasonably necessary under the circumstances to remove the minor from the vehicle.
- After retrieving the minor, remain with them in a safe location out of the elements but reasonably close to the vehicle until law enforcement, firefighters or other emergency responders arrive.
- If emergency conditions require leaving the scene with the minor, a written explanation must be placed on the vehicle.
If passed, Senate Bill 16 could have a major impact on the number of child heatstroke fatalities in Kentucky.
Kentucky now ranks 11th in the nation for the most vehicular heat stroke deaths. Twenty children trapped in cars died from heatstroke over the past 25 years, according to KidsandCars.org, a children’s advocacy group dedicated to safety of children in and around cars.
Dying of a heatstroke is not a quick and painless process. Children first experience heat exhaustion then slowly progress into heat stroke where they have symptoms such as severe headache, weakness, dizziness, confusion, rapid breathing and heartbeat, seizures, flushing, lack of sweating and eventually loss of consciousness, reports the Nemours Foundation, a children’s advocacy and health education group.
Two-thirds of heating inside a car occurs in the first 20 minutes, and cracking the window has little effect, according to research from San Jose State University in 2002. Between rising temperatures in a car and children’s bodies’ inability to cool as fast as adults, the situation can become fatal at a rapid pace, if not quickly intervened.
To avoid a potential rescuers’ hesitation, the proposed legislation would give communities a peace and mind and prevent people acting due to fear of being sued or taken to court, said District 6 Kentucky Sen. C.B. Embry.
“It’s more important to save the child than worry about damaging the car,” he said.
The bill not only provides civil immunity to a person who damages or enters a vehicle to save a child’s life, it also calls for education.
Section 3 strongly encourages the Office of Highway Safety within the Transportation Cabinet to create and implement an educational campaign regarding the safety threat heatstroke poses for children left in vehicles.
An education campaign called “Where’s the baby? Look before you lock” has already been ongoing for the past three years, said Bill Bell, executive director of the Office of Highway Safety. However, the campaign has not included radio or TV publicity due to lack of funding. The campaign was a call-to-action for parents, families and people in the community to avoid children getting heat exhaustion and hypothermia from being locked in a hot car.
This bill is proposed more than a decade since legislation criminalized leaving children in locked cars. Bryan’s Law came to be after one-year-old Bryan Puckett, died on July 13, 1999, due to injuries sustained from being left to sleep in a hot car.
Bryan’s Law states if vehicle operators cause the death of a child under 8 years old by leaving them in a vehicle, they can be charged with second-degree manslaughter. If the child is physically injured the operator could be charged with first-degree assault. Even if the child is not injured the operator could be still charged with first-degree wanton endangerment. The law also protects mentally or physically handicapped individuals.
Bryan died of hypothermia, also known as heatstroke, after his babysitter, Karen Murphy, a registered nurse and mother of two, left him and her own one-year old son Jason in the car for two hours in a busy shopping center parking lot. Jason lived through the ordeal.
Bryan’s parents, Michelle and William Puckett’s experience with law enforcement after their son’s death prompted them to call for clearer-cut legislation regarding fatal injuries caused by leaving children in hot cars.
Once they began writing up the bill, Puckett said it was eye opening to see how one word could make or break it.
“There was so much more to it than we realized,” she said.
Murphy was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and criminal abuse in 2000. She was sentenced to 10 years, but was released in May 2008.
Cases where parents leave their own children in the car are usually labeled as first-degree wanton endangerment, said Trooper Robert Purdy, public affairs officer for the Kentucky State Police.
Puckett said the bill should easily become law, but if not, it should be tagged on as an amendment to Bryan’s Law.
“I think people will respond well, because they’re going to have that much more protection to get involved,” Puckett said.
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