Play it Safe in the Car

Guest Post by Laura Wilhelm, EdD


New school year, new routines

When our routine is interrupted, we may forget important things. As many as 1 in 4 parents have forgotten a child in a car seat. We can help prevent supervisory neglect by making sure all caregivers have a plan:

  • suggests: “Keep a large teddy bear or other stuffed animal in the car seat when it’s empty. Move the teddy bear to the front seat when you place the child in the seat as a visual reminder.”
  • An even simpler plan: place your left shoe next to the child in a car seat. Alarms can malfunction; you might also forget your laptop or the teddy bear, but you are not going to walk very far without your shoe! (NPR)
  • Also make sure bus or van drivers have a plan & visual reminder so that no child is ever left on the bus.
  • If you see a child alone in a car, take action. Try to locate the parent and call the police. If necessary, break a window. Most states have Good Samaritan laws to designed protect those trying to help.
My 11-year-old was restless at my doctor appointment and wanted to go play with his Nintendo D.S. in the car. By the time I arrived 10 minutes later, he was lying in the seat with is head on the floorboard, his hair all sweaty. “Why didn’t you open a door or window?” His answer: “Didn’t think about it.”

Never leave a child alone in a car

Even for a few minutes: About 6% of people think that it is OK to leave a child alone in a car for 15 minutes or longer (USA Today). However, the temperature can quickly spike, even with a window cracked and even in mild weather causing heat stroke which can be fatal. Children can become caught in power windows, and can disengage parking breaks. About half of the states have current or proposed laws prohibiting unattended children in cars. (

Car seat safety:

Child safety seats, when used correctly, can reduce the risk of accidental death by 71%. However, 73% are not installed or used correctly. See for a quick checklist to make sure your car seat is installed correctly. Still need help? They also provide a list of community car seat check-up events near you. 

Booster seats:

Children are 45% less likely to be injured in a crash when using a booster seat, compared with a seat belt alone. offers these tips for when a booster is needed:

  1. The child’s knees should bend at the edge of the seat when his or her back and bottom are against the vehicle seat back.
  2. The vehicle lap belt should fit across the upper thighs.
  3. The shoulder belt should fit across the shoulder and chest. Children are usually between 8 and 12 years old when the seat belt fits them properly.

Choking hazards in the car:

Young children explore the world through their mouths. From the time they develop a pincer grasp and eye-hand coordination, their world becomes a celebration slobbery discovery. However, until about age 4 when their molars come in, they can bite off more than they can safely chew. This means babies, toddlers, and young preschoolers need to be directly supervised while eating, and should not have toys or art supplies that can fit in a “choking tester” (about the size of a cardboard paper towel tube). 



Laura Wilhelm, EdD, is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education in the Department of Education at Petree College of Arts & Sciences, Oklahoma City University. Over the past twenty years, she has worked in many different urban and suburban schools as both an early childhood educator and elementary school teacher. We hope you found these safety tips helpful and use them in your approach to the school year. To learn more about supervisory neglect and how it can be prevented, check out Laura's book The Neglected Child.

Free Activites & Printables

Early childhood education activities for the classroom and home. All free!

Browse Activities