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Preventing Hot Car Deaths

Preventing Hot Car Deaths

Hot car deaths are completely preventable. According to NoHeatStroke.org, a tragic total of 939 children have died from heat-related deaths after being left or trapped inside vehicles between 1998 and September 2021 (27 in 2021, 24 in 2020, 52 in 2019, 53 in 2018, 43 in 2017). On average, 39 children die in heat-related vehicle deaths each year. The majority of children (54%) have been forgotten in a vehicle by a caregiver. Sadly, another 17% of children who died in heat-related deaths were left in a vehicle intentionally by an adult. Of the other deaths, 28% were a result of children playing in an unattended vehicle while the remaining 1% of circumstances are unknown.

Preventing hot car deaths is a serious issue, so taking proactive steps to ensure the safety of children and pets in hot weather is important. Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:

  • Never leave a child or pet in a car unattended, even for a short period of time.
  • Lock vehicle doors and trunks when not in use to prevent children or pets from climbing inside.
  • Teach children not to play in or around cars.
  • Keep car keys out of reach of children.
  • Place a reminder on your phone or use an app to help you remember to check the back seat before leaving the car.
  • Store important items like your phone or purse in the back seat so you are more likely to check the back seat before exiting the vehicle.
  • Ask your childcare provider to call you if your child does not arrive as scheduled.
  • If you see a child or pet alone in a car, call 911 immediately.
  • Be aware of the signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke such as confusion, dizziness, nausea, and a high body temperature. Seek medical attention immediately if you or your child experiences these symptoms.
  • Spread awareness about the dangers of leaving children or pets in hot cars by sharing information with friends and family members and supporting local initiatives to prevent hot car deaths.

The most serious form of heat injury, heat stroke can kill or cause damage to the brain and other internal organs. Heat stroke occurs as a result of prolonged exposure to high temperatures when the core body temperature rises to greater than 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Infants and young children are more sensitive to the effects of extreme heat than older children and adults and consequently suffer from heat stroke more quickly. Of the children who have died from vehicular heat stroke in the United States since 1998, the majority (96%) were under that age of 5 with the most deaths occurring in infants under the age of 1 (32%) followed by 22% of deaths in children between ages 1 and 2 and 20% between the ages of 2 and 3. A child can die in a hot car in as little as 15 minutes.

Vehicular heat stroke is a serious problem and almost entirely preventable. First, to avoid the accidental death of a child in an unattended vehicle, lock your car doors. Child can easily open a vehicle door and climb inside but then become trapped. Either the child cannot open the door again from the inside, or the child quickly becomes overcome from heat, passes out (which is an early symptom of heat stroke), and then dies — all in as little as 15 minutes. You can easily prevent accidental heat-related deaths in your unattended vehicle by locking the doors. Even if you keep your vehicle in a garage, keeping the doors locked may save the life of a child. Also keep your keys out of reach. Children have died after using keys to unlock locked vehicles and climbing inside.

To prevent the majority of hot vehicle deaths, organizations like Kids and Cars and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommend a combination of education and technology. The simplest preventative strategy is to create a reminder to check the back seat of your vehicle. Place your phone, purse, or other important item in the back seat alongside your child so that you do not inadvertently forget to check the car seat. Technology such as phone apps and car seat devices can also help prevent hot car deaths. Make a habit of looking before you lock your vehicle. Check the back seat whether you think you child is with you or not. Too many children have died after being left inside vehicles simply because a parent or caregiver forgot that the child was there.

In addition to the “Look Before You Lock” campaign, NHTSA also recommends against leaving a child alone in a vehicle. Even on a cloudy day, the temperature inside a vehicle can rise in minutes. Remember: A child can die inside a vehicle in as little as 15 minutes. Cracking a window also does nothing to prevent the inside of a vehicle from rising to dangerous temperatures. Waking your sleeping baby to run inside a store for just a minute is a small price to pay compared to the potential for a hot car death. If you do see a child left inside a vehicle who seems hot or sick, call 911 and then get the child out of the vehicle as quickly as possible. Do not wait for more than a few minutes for the driver to return. “Good Samaritan” laws offer legal protection for people who offer assistance in an emergency — and preventing a heat-related vehicular death is an emergency.

What does not help prevent hot car deaths are the heartless and ignorant comments from people who think that heat-related vehicular deaths could never happen to their children. I recently saw an ad on Facebook from NHTSA about preventing vehicular heat stroke in children. Most parents carry phones around nowadays, so the simplest preventative measure is for parents to leave the phone in the back seat when driving. So many nasty commenters replied that people who forget their children but not their phones should not be parents. Other Negative Nancys say that they would never forget their kids. My reply is always the same: “Must be nice to be a perfect person with a perfect memory who has never forgotten anything. Be part of the solution instead of leaving nasty comments.”

The human brain is not infallible. Even the greatest parent in the world forgets things sometimes. Furthermore, disruptions such as busy times, schedule changes, holidays, and periods of crisis negatively affect memory. If Dad usually drops Baby off at daycare but Mom takes over for a day, the simple change in schedule can cause her to forget that she has Baby in the back seat of her car. In fact, many heat-related vehicular deaths occur when a daily schedule changes. No parent is perfect. No one never forgets anything. If leaving your phone in the back seat of your vehicle helps prevent the hot car death of even one child, then the Debbie Downers need to get off their high horses and shut up.

The legal consequences of hot car deaths can vary depending on the specific circumstances of each case. In some cases, criminal charges may be filed against the caregiver or parent responsible for leaving a child unattended in a hot car. Depending on the state and the circumstances, charges can range from misdemeanor child endangerment to felony manslaughter or murder. Some states also have laws specifically addressing leaving children unattended in cars, which can result in fines or other penalties. In addition to criminal charges, a person responsible for a hot car death may also face civil lawsuits and be held liable for damages, which can include compensation for medical expenses, funeral costs, and pain and suffering as well as punitive damages in some cases. But legal consequences are not the only or even the most important concern in cases of hot car deaths. The most important consideration is preventing tragic accidents from happening in the first place by raising awareness, promoting safe practices, and taking steps to protect children and pets in hot weather.

While hot car deaths can occur year-round, summer sadly brings about a rise in child deaths simply because of increasing temperatures. Fortunately, heat-related vehicular deaths among children are entirely preventable. Parents and caregivers can take a few simple steps to prevent the unfortunate death of a child. Look in the back seat before you lock the car and walk away. Leave your phone, purse, or another important item in the back of your vehicle to force yourself to remember to check the back seat. Never leave your child in your unattended vehicle, not even for a minute. Remember: Heat stroke in a vehicle can occur in as a little as 15 minutes. Finally, keep your unattended vehicle locked and the keys put away to prevent little ones from climbing inside and accidentally becoming trapped. Do whatever you need to do to prevent another vehicular heat stroke tragedy this summer.

Child Vehicular Heat Stroke Fact Sheet

Also check out Preventing Heat Stroke: Stay Hydrated and Avoid Sunburn for more tips for preventing heat-related illnesses.

This post was originally published on June 20, 2017 and updated on May 1, 2023.

References

Heat and Infants and Children: https://www.cdc.gov/extremeheat/children.html
Heat Stroke: http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/heat-stroke-symptoms-and-treatment
Heat Stroke: http://www.kidsandcars.org/how-kids-get-hurt/heat-stroke/
Heat Stroke Deaths of Children in Vehicles: http://noheatstroke.org/
Look Before You Lock: http://www.kidsandcars.org/files/2016/06/heatstroke-safetytips-2016.pdf
NoHeatStroke.org. (n.d.). No Heat Stroke: A Data Site on Heatstroke Deaths of Children in Vehicles. Department of Meteorology and Climate Science, San Jose State University. Retrieved September 14, 2021, from https://www.noheatstroke.org/
Prevent Child Heatstroke in Cars: https://icsw.nhtsa.gov/safercar/parents/InandAroundtheCar/heatstroke.htm
Protecting Your Child from Dehydration and Heat Illness: http://www.webmd.com/children/dehydration-heat-illness#1

Image Credits

Preventing Hot Car Deaths: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cadeirinha_(22777808525).jpg (CC BY 2.0) and https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2017.09.18GHSPCarSeats_(43_of_236)_(36474212344).jpg (CC BY 2.0)
Child Vehicular Heat Stroke Fact Sheet: http://www.kidsandcars.org/files/2016/06/HS_factsheetRGB.jpg

Written by Heather

Heather is a writer, librarian, linguist, wife, homemaker, homeschooler, and mother.

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