Children left in hot cars: a deadly combination that must stop

UPDATE, 1:25 p.m.: I have become aware (from readers) of a compelling, in-depth piece written by Gene Weingarten in 2009 which provides a sobering look at how this tragedy can happen to good parents. It’s an eye-opener, and I regret if my rhetoric below unfairly demonized those this has happened to through a tragic convergence of circumstances rather than poor judgment or neglect. Weingarten’s must-read piece: Fatal Distraction

Original post: People do plenty of unsafe things in hazardous weather that put themselves and/or others at risk: they drive across flooded roads, they refuse to leave their homes during a hurricane evacuation, they willfully fry themselves in the sun, they carry on with recreational activities in lightning, and I could go on.

But leaving a child in a hot car goes beyond risky, unsafe behavior and enters the realm of criminal neglect.

Sadly and senselessly, two very young children died in the Washington-Baltimore metro region on Friday when caretakers allowed them to bake in stifling hot automobiles for four hours or more:

* An eight-month old infant boy died in Arlington, Va. after his mother allegedly forgot about him in the car for six hours. She was charged with felony neglect.
* A 16-month old girl died in Baltimore after she was left in a truck for four hours by a relative.

“With an outside air temperature in the upper 80s, the inside air temperature of the car could have been in excess of 130 degrees,” said meteorologist Jan Null, a leading researcher on hot vehicles, children and heatstroke. “Objects or a person inside the car in direct sunlight would have been significantly hotter.”

It may surprise (and appall) you how often caretakers simply forget about their children inside hot cars. From 1998 to 2012, of the 559 child heatstroke deaths in vehicles, 288 (52 percent) happened after caretakers simply forgot they were there, Null’s statistics show.

In a guest blog post here on the Capital Weather Gang blog a few years ago Null discussed the tragic, recurring scenario of the forgotten child:

Over half of juvenile vehicular hyperthermia fatalities occur when a caregiver is somehow distracted and accidentally leaves a child in a vehicle. 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.

Null said Friday’s child heatstroke deaths in the Washington-Baltimore region Friday were two of 19 in the nation so far this year.

“Last year there were a total of 32 juvenile vehicular hyperthermia deaths nationwide with one of those occurring in Virginia,” Null said in an email.

Since 1998, 17 children have died in hot vehicles in Virginia and 9 in Maryland according to Null’s numbers.

Everyone knows from experience that a car parked in the sun heats up. But what may be less obvious is how quickly the temperature skyrockets and to what to degree (note: cracking the window offers little relief).

Even at just 80 degrees, it only takes one hour for the air temperature inside a car to heat up to over 120 degrees.

Animation of temperature inside of a car every ten minutes as it sits in the sun when the outside temperature is 80 degrees (General Motors and Golden Gate Weather Services).

Animation of temperature inside of a car every ten minutes as it sits in the sun when the outside temperature is 80 degrees (General Motors and Golden Gate Weather Services).

Children have died in hot cars in outside temperatures as “cool” as the upper 60s according to Null, as the body’s of infants and children heat at a rate three to five times faster than adults.

What you can do

Every time I read about a helpless child or infant dying in a hot car, I become incensed because it’s so inexcusable and preventable. I realize I’m preaching to the choir here, but please consider these child and hot car safety tips – taken from Jan Null – and spread the word to family and friends:

* NEVER LEAVE A CHILD UNATTENDED IN A VEHICLE. NOT EVEN FOR A MINUTE!

* IF YOU SEE A CHILD UNATTENDED IN A HOT VEHICLE CALL 9-1-1.

* Be sure that all occupants leave the vehicle when unloading. Don’t overlook sleeping babies.

* 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.

* Keep a stuffed animal in the carseat and when the child is put in the seat place the animal in the front with the driver.

* Or place your purse or briefcase in the back seat as a reminder that you have your child in the car.

* Make “look before you leave” a routine whenever you get out of the car.

* Have a plan that your childcare provider will call you if your child does not show up for school.

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