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Why California's 'Hot Car Rescue' Law Is A Bad Idea

While some people spend their weekends binging on Netflix or junk food, California Gov. Jerry Brown just completed a trifecta of junk legislation designed to make himself look good, even if the laws aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

First, Brown further ingratiated himself to Hollywood by passing an unenforceable, unconstitutional law that will require popular entertainment site IMDB to remove the ages or dates of birth of actors and actresses who want that information taken down. Thespians can also block IMDB from displaying that information in the first place. Billed as a victory for Hollywood talent disenfranchised by ageism, the law aims to prevent IMDB -- and websites like it -- from posting factual, public information. Good luck with that.

Brown's second junk law "encourages" transportation agencies in the state to "consider" using reversible lanes in high-traffic areas, according to the Los Angeles Times. There's no word on how that law will be implemented or enforced. Maybe the state can pay for representatives to travel to every county DOT and city highway department in the state and declare: "Gov. Brown wants you to consider reversible lanes!" That would be a fine use of taxpayer money.

Rounding out the hat trick is feel-good legislation that allows Californians to break into cars if they believe animals inside are in danger of overheating.

Dubbed the Right to Rescue Act, the law says well-meaning passersby must call police first if they spot an animal inside a car. If they believe law enforcement isn't arriving fast enough -- which appears to be an arbitrary time period based on individual judgment -- the good Samaritans can break car windows to free the trapped animals.

People who decide to destroy the property of total strangers are then instructed to wait for police to arrive, and the law says they can't be held liable for damage caused by their rescue attempts.

After all, who would oppose such an effort? You believe in helping animals, don't you? What kind of heartless person would have a problem with this law?

Like so many junk laws, the Right to Rescue Act is an appeal to emotion. It's not really enforceable, and it's likely most people won't even know of its existence. But it scores points with animal rights activists and people who don't think things through.

First, the obvious: Pets shouldn't be left in vehicles while owners go shopping or run errands. The American Veterinary Medical Association has produced a helpful chart meant to emphasize how quickly temperatures can rise inside vehicles, even if outside temperatures aren't particularly stifling.

For example, on a 70-degree day, temperatures inside a parked car can reach 99 degrees in 20 minutes. On an 80-degree day, temperatures can reach almost 110 degrees over the same stretch of time. Leaving a dog or cat in the car to run into a store can kill the animal within minutes on days when the temperature is 85 or above. At 85 degrees, it takes less than 10 minutes for the temperature inside a car to reach 104 degrees. That's about the time it takes for someone to duck into a corner store and buy a lotto ticket.

We're supposed to be the smart ones, the sapient animals on this planet, so it's our responsibility to care for our furry friends and make sure they don't become victims of our own stupidity.

The problem is, the Right to Rescue Act could have unintended consequences that can lead to injury, lawsuits, and even further endanger the animals it's meant to protect.

First, it's not a good idea to encourage citizens to smash car windows. There's a reason police are trusted to make those calls -- flying glass can be dangerous to the person breaking the window and to the animal inside. If the animal is unrestrained -- as most are -- what's to stop a dog from leaping out of a window and cutting itself on the jagged edges of glass still stuck to the window frame?

What's to stop that animal from running and never coming back? Cats are usually the more skittish pets, but dogs can also be easily spooked, especially if a stranger they've never seen walks up and smashes the window of their owner's car. Who's responsible if a dog or cat bolts and goes missing?

And if you're a criminal, isn't the law a little too good to be true? Suppose an opportunistic thief sees a laptop bag on a seat inside the car, an iPhone resting on a center console or a GPS device that could fetch a few hundred dollars on Craigslist? What's preventing someone from calling the police, breaking the window before an officer arrives, and claiming there was a dog or cat inside who ran off? The "good Samaritan" has to stay until police arrive, but people can simply leave and easily claim ignorance afterward if they're caught. "iPad? What iPad? All I saw was a suffering dog who was going to die if I didn't let him out!"

Hundreds of pets die every year because their owners underestimate how quickly temperatures inside cars can become fatal. But the way to reduce those deaths is through education and outreach campaigns -- by making sure veterinarians and animal shelters speak to pet owners about the dangers of hot cars, by placing signs in pet stores and perhaps even in parking lots. A little social media shaming might do the trick as well, as people are much less likely to engage in certain behavior if they know a photo of their face or a Vine of them walking back to their car could go viral.

Right to Rescue may have the right sentiment and the right intentions, but it can also set the stage for things to go horribly wrong. California lawmakers should give the issue more thought and at least pass a tighter version of the law before it's abused or ends in the type of tragedy it aims to prevent.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Deadline, American Veterinary Medical Association / Photo credit: grassrootsgroundswell/Flickr

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