Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Errand Bill

The crossover date has passed and we have the working list for the General Assembly's summer. Occasionally you run across a bill which leaves you wondering what, exactly, were the legislators thinking at the time. In particular, I'm wondering about H1562, the "Unattended Child in Vehicle" act which I've dubbed "The Errand Bill".

I have many young children and I've lived in hotter climates than North Carolina, so I'm fully on board with cautions against leaving children in potentially dangerous situations. As so often is the case, I can give full credit to the lawmakers for good intentions with this bill.

However, like the law which now keeps third graders strapped in booster seats, this one may be more hassle than necessary for the desired effect.

It could be worse, and for a time it was. The original bill, as introduced by Representative Underhill, would have made it a class 2 misdemeanor for an eight-year-old child to be left alone in a vehicle "if conditions within or in the immediate vicinity ... present a risk to the child's health or safety". That sounds reasonable, but there is no recognition of even the most mundane of driving events -- a stop for gas. Under the original provisions of the bill, a parent who left the car to fill the tank, even if they paid at the pump and never left the vehicle's side, could have been liable for prosecution and up to thirty days in jail.

Thank goodness for committee work.

In the current edition, the test of a "reasonable person" is added -- though when it comes to children's health and safety, I find that "reasonable people" can be found to believe nearly anything. The penalties are ratcheted down a notch (a parent no longer faces six months in jail if they pump gas and then go to the ATM, i.e. "second or subsequent offense"). They even include a proviso for "line of sight" as adequate supervision.

However, the bill still indicates that you can't leave a 13-year-old to watch the sleeping baby while Mom steps inside to pick up a prescription or to put a package on the post office counter, or a third grader doing homework in the van while dad drops off the vestry keys at the church office.

I am certain our Solons were thinking about day care workers who forget the last child on the van, or parents who recklessly abandon their children while they tank up with a different sort of fire water. Absolutely, people should be held accountable for placing children's lives at risk. The days when a mother might park the baby and carriage outside the store while she selects a bag full of groceries are long, long, forever gone.

But I picture a mom like my wife, huddling next to the van pumping gas on a rainy winter morning, with a baby on her hip and two little ones shivering next to her. Which is endangering the children more, leaving them buckled into their seats while mom stands eighteen inches and a sheet of glass away? Or out of the car, on the pavement, in the rain, as the original bill seemed to expect?

Sometimes you wonder. And that's why the unintended consequences loom large whenever the legislature is in sesson -- good intentions notwithstanding.

It passed the second reading 108-4.


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