Death of Texas autistic child in hot car raises national toll to 15 for 2015

Stock image for illustration purposes, does not depict any person mentioned in the attached report | St. George News

ST. GEORGE – A 5-year-old boy died Sunday in Burleson, Texas, from heatstroke after he reportedly crawled into a parked car unattended.  Zachary Elshaarawi’s death brings the vehicle-related heatstroke death toll for children in the U.S. this year to 15, compared to 31 children in 2014.

When police responded to assist in a search for the missing child Sunday afternoon, Elshaarawi’s father told them he could not find his autistic son, according to Fox 4 News. Searchers located the child in the passenger side backseat of his mother’s car, a Ford Taurus, parked in the driveway of his grandparents’ home where he was staying. Police said the child wandered to the car on his own and is believed to have been in the car over half an hour, the Fox 4 News report said. It was 100 degrees outside.

Statistics

Of the 15 deaths in 2015, 10 are confirmed heatstroke deaths and 5 are characterized probable. Five occurred in Texas, three in Florida and the rest in several states nationwide – one as far north as Idaho. None of the 2015 deaths occurred in Utah.

Data offered by the Department of Meteorology & Climate Science at San Jose University through Sunday indicates 652 such deaths since 1998. That translates to an average of 37 child heatstroke fatalities per year as a result of children being left in vehicles since 1998. Children reflected in the study range in age from 5 days to 14 years old but more than half of them were younger than 2 years.

Stock image for illustration purposes, does not depict any person mentioned in the attached report | St. George News
Stock image for illustration purposes, does not depict any person mentioned in the attached report | St. George News

Vehicles and heatstroke

Vehicles heat up quickly, reaching life-threatening temperatures rapidly.

The temperature inside a vehicle can reach deadly levels in just 10 minutes if the outside temperature is in the low 80 degrees. Even with temperatures in the 60s or 70s, heatstroke poses a serious risk, according to the university data.

Heatstroke is clinically defined as when a person’s temperature exceeds 104 degrees and their thermoregulatory mechanism is overwhelmed, according to the university data.

Children overheat three to five times faster than adults, and a child will die of heatstroke once their body temperature reaches 107 degrees as internal organs begin to shut down.

“Every heatstroke death caused by leaving a child unattended in a hot car is 100 percent preventable,” Mark Rosekind, administrator with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said, and added:

The message is simple: never leave a child alone in a vehicle and always check the back seat before walking away. As a bystander, if you see a kid alone in a hot car, take action. Working together, we can prevent these tragedies.

Warning devices

The safety administration released a technical report on July 31 intended as a roadmap to help manufacturers design electronic reminder systems. While a number of such systems are now available – either as features on child safety seats or as add-on products – their capabilities and ease of use vary.

Read more: New car seat design helps prevent children from being left in hot cars

Prevention

While the administration encourages innovative solutions to what it calls a “one hundred percent preventable tragedy,” it also encourages families to maintain vigilant parenting and caregiving practices and not rely on any single safeguard against leaving a child unattended in a vehicle.

Parents and caregivers are urged to take the following precautions to prevent heatstroke incidents from occurring:

  • Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle – even if the windows are partially open or the engine is running and the air conditioning is on
  • Make a habit of looking in the vehicle – front and back – before locking the door and walking away
  • Ask the childcare provider to call if the child doesn’t show up for care as expected
  • Do things that serve as a reminder that a child is in the vehicle, such as placing a phone, purse or briefcase in the back seat to ensure no child is accidentally left in the vehicle, or writing a note or using a stuffed animal placed in the driver’s view to indicate a child is in the car seat
  • Always lock your vehicle when not in use and store keys out of a child’s reach so children cannot enter unattended, and teach children that a vehicle is not a play area
  • Community members who see a child alone in a vehicle should immediately call 911 or the local emergency number. A child in distress due to heat should be removed from the vehicle as quickly as possible and rapidly cooled

Symptoms of heatstroke may include: dizziness, disorientation, agitation, confusion, sluggishness, seizure, hot dry skin that is flushed but not sweaty, loss of consciousness, rapid heartbeat and hallucinations.

Stock image for illustration purposes, does not depict any person mentioned in the attached report | St. George News
Stock image for illustration purposes, does not depict any person mentioned in the attached report | St. George News

The law

Currently, 20 states including Utah, have laws specifically addressing leaving a child unattended in a vehicle.

In hopes of deterring parents from making that sometimes fatal decision, Utah Criminal Code Section 76-10-2202 – “Leaving a child unattended in a motor vehicle”  – was enacted during the state’s 2011 General Session. The new statute gave law enforcement options for cases involving children left alone in cars.

In a debate over the bill that gave rise to the criminal statute, Sen. Ben McAdams said the bill would add needed clarity to the law that leaving a child unattended in a motor vehicle under circumstances that constitute risk is behavior that needs to be punished, but is not child abuse.

Instead of issuing charges of child abuse or neglect, deemed far more serious in nature, the newer statute gives authorities the ability to cite parents with a class C misdemeanor, at least on the first offense.

“Everything we know about these needless tragedies indicates heatstroke in hot cars can happen to any parent from any walk of life,” U.S Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said, adding:

We all have a role to play, by taking practical, effective measures to protect our own kids and by calling 911 if we see a child in distress.

St. George News Editor-in-Chief Joyce Kuzmanic contributed to this report.

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Email: kscott@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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2 Comments

  • SteveSGU August 24, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    I almost always have a problem with your use of photos to “illustrate” a news report that have nothing to do with the actual event. In this case, using a photo to illustrate how a baby might die in a hot car is really quite tasteless. I think you should remove this photo.

  • Dexter August 24, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    Yeah that is kinda tacky

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