19th hot car death in U.S. this year prompts warnings about child safety

ST. GEORGE — Over the last 20 years, more than 690 children across the U.S. have died from heatstroke due to being left in a hot car – that’s nearly one child every 10 days.

Graphic shows child vehicular heat stroke fatalities by state over a 26-year period | Image courtesy of kidsandcars.org, St. George News

The Utah Highway Patrol recently posted a safety advisory from the National Highway Transportation Administration cautioning parents and caregivers to “always check the back seat before exiting your vehicle, and lock the doors of unattended vehicles,” after the number of children killed in hot cars across the country rose to 18 this year.

On Tuesday, that number went up to 19 when a 3-year-old died after being left in a car on the University of Southern Indiana campus, according to the Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Office.

The child was discovered inside the car by his father at 1:45 p.m. EDT after being left in the vehicle since early that morning, authorities say. Temperatures in Evansville reached 89 before 1:45 p.m., according to the National Weather Service.

Nationally in 2018, 52 children died in a hot car, marking it as the deadliest year in history for hot car-related deaths. The average age of the children was 21 months.

The National Safety Council says there are three primary circumstances resulting in deaths of children in hot cars, which include a caregiver forgetting a child in a vehicle, a child gaining access to a vehicle or someone knowingly leaving a child in a vehicle.

While the majority of the deaths were the result of a child left unattended by a parent, in 27% of the cases, it was the child who found their way into the vehicle and became locked in, Utah Department of Public Safety Sgt. Nick Street said.

“These tragedies are happening far too often,” said Cambree Applegate, director of Safe Kids Utah. “They are heartbreaking and preventable and a reminder for all of us to be aware of the dangers of leaving a child alone in a hot car.”

Nearly three decades ago, child hot car deaths were rare. In fact, in 1990, five children died as a result of being left in a hot car — within five years, that number rose to 25.

During that same time, there was a push for higher safety standards to better protect children from injuries, one of which was a recommendation that child seats be moved to the back of the car and that infant seats be turned to face the rear to prevent injury or death when passenger-side front airbags deploy, a 2014 study found.

The greenhouse effect

There is a “greenhouse effect” that occurs inside of a closed vehicle, according to KidsAndCars.org. Even with the windows cracked, the temperature inside a car can reach 130-170 degrees in minutes, and 80% of that rise in temperature takes place within the first 10 minutes of a car being parked.

Even when the outside temperature is 80 degrees, the inside of a vehicle can reach triple digits, said Dave Heaton, public information officer for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department.

Heaton said these temperatures can lead to heat stroke, the No. 1 weather-related killer.

A child’s physiology

Understanding why children are more vulnerable to heatstroke than adults is vital — a child’s body heats up three to five times faster than an adult’s, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

Image courtesy of the National Highway Transportation Administration, St. George News

The body is cooled by sweating, but that only works when there is an air current, which is virtually nonexistent inside a parked vehicle. Making matters worse, a child’s sweat glands develop with age, so the younger the child, the less developed they are.

Rapidly rising heat overwhelms a child’s ability to regulate his or her internal temperature. As such, a body, especially a small one, can go into shock quickly, and circulation to vital organs can fail.

Organs can fail when the body’s core temperature reaches 104 degrees, and at 107 degrees, death can occur, Heaton explained, adding that getting to those temperatures “doesn’t take very long in a hot car.”

Why parents leave kids in cars

There are a number of psychological and neurological factors that can cause responsible people to make fatal errors like leaving a child in a hot car, according to research conducted by University of South Florida psychology professor David Diamond.

Diamond explains that the brain can sometimes fail to remember to do something in the future, such as remembering to call a friend after lunch or to stop at the store on the way home from work. This can happen when the brain is on auto‐pilot, doing what it would do on any given day without accounting for changes in routine.

Extensive research has also shown that the completion of a task can fail in a matter of seconds when competing factors come into play, such as a phone call, a sudden change of routine, stress or sleep deprivation.

Car seat design and use is another factor, as rear‐facing car seats look the same regardless of whether a baby is in them, and babies often fall asleep in their rear‐facing child safety seats, making them quiet passengers.

Street said there are several devices on the market that can alert parents when their child is still in the vehicle.

One such product, the ChildMinder SoftClip, is a digital shoulder harness clip that replaces the one that comes with the car seat and syncs to either a smartphone app or a key fob and sounds an alarm eight seconds after the parent walks more than 15 feet from the car.

The Sunshine Baby iRemind is a soft-sensing pad that looks like a teddy bear and fits under the padded car-seat cushion. It has an alarm that reportedly can detect a mere pound of weight and emits an audible alarm if you walk more than 15 feet away from the vehicle.

Another product, Sense A Life, is a wireless car seat alarm that reminds parents four different times that there’s a child sitting in the back, using LED lights, sounds and an alert that is sent to a smartphone.

It only happens to other people

Most parents believe forgetting their child in a car is something that will never happen to them — until it does, Diamond explains in his report. In more than half of the cases studied, the person responsible for the child’s death unknowingly left them in the vehicle. In most situations, the incidents involved loving, caring and protective parents.

The National Safety Council says the best way to reduce the risk of leaving a child in a car is to stick to a routine and avoid distractions. Additionally, placing a purse, briefcase or “even a left shoe” in the back seat will force the parent or caregiver to take one last look before walking away from the vehicle. And everyone — not only parents — needs to be mindful of keeping car doors locked to prevent children from getting inside on their own.

For more information on preventing child heatstroke deaths, visit the Safe Kids website.


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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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