ST. GEORGE – As temperatures start to climb, the number of children who die in vehicles also starts to rise and, according to the Kids and Cars website, vehicular heat stroke is largely misunderstood by the general public.
“Nobody ever thinks something like this could happen to them, until it does,” Deborah Hersman, National Safety Council president and CEO, said. “Unfortunately, every summer, dozens of children die as a result of high temperatures inside of cars. These unintended mistakes can devastate families …”
In 2013, 44 children died from heatstroke inside of vehicles, and so far this year, there have been at least 13 heatstroke deaths of children in vehicles. While groups are petitioning to get lifesaving technology to the market, with the proper education and action, these deaths are preventable.
Cracking a window won’t help
It’s called hyperthermia or heatstroke and it can happen faster than one might imagine. In just ten minutes, a car’s temperature can increase by 19 degrees – and continues to rise. Children or animals left inside a vehicle quickly overheat, resulting in devastating injury, permanent brain damage or death.
Studies done by the Department of Earth & Climate Sciences show that these incidents can occur on days with relatively mild – 70 degrees – temperatures and that vehicles can reach life-threatening temperatures very rapidly. Children overheat three to five times faster than adults. Even in 70 degree weather, a vehicle can reach a life-threatening temperature in just minutes.
Cracking the windows or using a window shield shade has little to no effect on maintaining a temperature inside the car that is safe for small children.
On average, 38 children die in this way in the U.S. when the weather gets warm.
A horrible mistake or criminal negligence?
What kind of parent forgets their baby or accidentally leaves their children to die? Statistics and data show it is not the stupid, callous, or irresponsible human being some might think.
The reality is that many of these deaths are a result of forgetfulness rather than neglect or poor judgement, occurring when distracted but otherwise responsible parents or caretakers inadvertently leave a child in the car – a horrible mistake through a tragic convergence of circumstances. A mistake of memory that delivers a lifelong sentence of guilt far greater than any a judge or jury could hand down.
These tragedies can happen to anyone – even to good parents.
“Memory is a machine and it is not flawless,” Dr. David Diamond, professor of molecular physiology, University of South Florida, said. “Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you’re capable of forgetting your cell phone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child.”
Most parents would like to believe that they could never “forget” their child in a vehicle, but according to the Kids and Cars website, that is the most dangerous mistake a parent or caregiver can make is thinking it cannot happen to them or their family.
“Over half of juvenile vehicular hyperthermia fatalities occur when a caregiver is somehow distracted and accidentally leaves a child in a vehicle,” Jan Null, a leading researcher on hot vehicles, children and heatstroke, said. “And in nearly half of these cases, the child was supposed to be dropped off at either childcare or preschool. These cases happen to parents, grandparents, siblings and childcare providers. It is often a matter of a change of routine, where one person normally is responsible for a child and on a given day another person forgets they have the responsibility that day.”
There are a number of factors which contribute to kids being inadvertently forgotten in vehicles. Some of the most common include: changes in normal routine, lack of sleep, stress, distractions and demands of a busy life and hormone changes. Also, young children, especially babies, often fall asleep in their car seats and become very quiet.
What you can do
The National Safety Council urges all parents and caregivers to take an extra look before stepping out of their vehicles to ensure safety of their children and pets. The difference can be life or death.
Follow these simple steps to ensure a safe trip:
- Never leave children unattended in a car
- If you spot a child alone in a car, don’t hesitate, call 911
- Put something needed on that trip in the backseat – like a purse, briefcase or phone – or place a stuffed animal in the front seat as a reminder the child is there
- Always lock your car and ensure children do not have access to keys or remote entry devices
- If a child is missing, check the car first, including the trunk
- Teach your children that vehicles are never to be used as a play area
- Use drive-thru services whenever possible
- Have a plan that your childcare provider will call you if your child does not show up for school
- Be sure that all occupants leave the vehicle when unloading. Don’t overlook sleeping babies
- Make “look before you leave” a routine whenever you get out of the car
The NeverLeft in a Hot Car campaign was started to prevent child deaths in cars by encouraging drivers to put their left shoe in the back seat with the child. The idea is if you’re driving a child, after you buckle them in in the back seat, put your left shoe back there too. When you reach your destination, even if you are distracted, you will notice you’re not wearing a shoe and be reminded that it’s with your child.
Additionally, new inventions like the ChildMinder SoftClip lifesaving alert system are emerging to help caregivers remember. With this two-part device, a small unit clips on the child’s safety seat, seat belt and the alerting unit fits on the driver’s key ring. The small clip-on device beeps for 8 seconds if the adult has moved more than 15 feet away from a child in a car seat.
One step further
Kids and Cars have proposed legislation to go into effect that would require all car seats to have a seat belt reminder. This bill also included a reverse reminder for a child-left-behind warning.
In 2002, after Null’s co-worker’s infant died in a NASA parking lot, the rocket scientist came up with a solution called the Child Presence Sensor. This device registers weight present in the child safety seats. If the keys are moved 10 feet away from the car, they will start beeping until the child is removed from their seat.
Volvo’s “Personal Car Communicator” is advertised to women afraid of a “boogeyman” being in the back seat. The device, developed in 2001, can detect a heartbeat inside the car and sends a warning to the driver’s key fob.
“A warning device is technically feasible,” Ken Waller, a Ford design analysis engineer and an expert witness in safety liability cases, said. “But what I see here is low incidence. Every case is tragic, but the rate of occurrence is minimal. Product planners would probably say we can’t penalize every back-seat car in regard to cost. It would take regulation before a car company would do it.”
I believe what they see is unaware consumers that think this problem would never happen to them. If you have ever locked your keys in your car, you could have as easily locked a child in a car. The number of children that died from 2001 to 2010 is 388. They shouldn’t have died. Throwing someone in jail and feeling sorry for the family will not bring one of these kids back nor prevent another child from a similar tragedy. Don’t wait till this hits you on a personal level. Demand better and inform others of these solutions. No child should die or be injured from being left in a vehicle.
“If we leave the headlights on or keys in the ignition, our cars provide a warning buzz. Somehow our society has decided that it’s not okay to have a dead car battery; but it’s okay to have a dead baby,” Null said. “The issue is not the technology; the issue is getting it to market.”
Note: This story is premised on statistics and information collected regarding children, but it is also important to note that many of these factors play a role in the safety of pets as well.
- Heatstroke Deaths of Children in Vehicles
- National Safety Council
- Kids and cars
- U.S. Child Vehicular Heatstroke Fatalities Map
- Technology is the Solution to Children Dying in Hot Cars Petition published July 29, 2012
- NeverLeft in a Hot Car Campaign
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