The United States is approaching the hottest time of the year. On Thursday and Friday this week, high temperatures across almost half the country are forecast to exceed 90 degrees.
It is now a critical time to raise awareness of the lethal combination of unattended children and hot car interiors.
When it’s 90 degrees outside, it takes just 10 minutes for the temperature inside a stationary car to rise to a life-threatening 109 degrees, according to climatologist Jan Null. Within 60 minutes, the temperature surges to a suffocating 133 degrees.
“When a core body temperature of 107 degrees or greater is reached, then cells are damaged and internal organs begin to shut down,” Null writes on his website, noheatstroke.org. “This cascade of events can rapidly lead to death.”
On average, 37 children die in hot cars each year. While such deaths usually occur during hot weather (air temperatures in the 80s and 90s), they can occur in cooler temperatures (60s and 70s) because cars absorb sunlight so efficiently. In one case in January of this year, an infant boy in Georgia died from hyperthermia at an air temperature of 52 degrees, when his grandmother left him in a car for five hours in direct sunlight — with the vehicle’s heat on.
In most cases (54 percent of the time), these deaths occur when caregivers forget their children in the car, the website says. But sometimes (29 percent of the time), unsupervised children lock themselves in hot cars while playing. Occasionally (17 percent of the time), an adult intentionally leaves a child in the car, unaware of the danger.
Sixteen children have perished in hot cars so far in 2016, Null’s website says, all between the ages of 6 months and 3 years old. The six-month tally is slightly higher than the long-term average: 14 through the end of June.
Null’s site links to news articles describing each death so far in 2016, and each is painful to read. In some cases, it’s apparent a caregiver is guilty of neglect, but in other cases assigning blame is much less clear-cut.
There are well-documented cases in which children are left in hot cars following a change in caregiver routine. A caregiver simply forgets their child is still in the car. They then return to the car — sometimes many hours later — to an unthinkable nightmare.
Consider the tragic death in May of 9-month-old Jefferson Brady Wilkins in Wilmington, N.C. His sleep-deprived mother, Nancy Wilkins, broke from her normal routine of first taking him to day-care and instead accompanied him to a doctor’s appointment, according to reporting from the Star News Online. After the appointment, Wilkins proceeded to a coffee shop — part of her pre-work routine, forgetting Jefferson was in the car. Wilkins proceeded to the office, where she left Jefferson in her black SUV in the broiling sun for eight hours.
Wilkins realized her son was in the car when she showed up at day-care after work and was told he wasn’t there. The traumatic account of her discovering him, from the Star News Online, is hard to read:
Her horrifying realization was captured on the recording of her call to 911.
Most of what she said was lost in her shrieks — except for four words — “baby in the car.”
Bystanders tried to help. A Time Warner Cable employee broke out the back window of the SUV with a crowbar and crawled inside. Someone outside managed to get the door open. They pulled Jefferson’s tiny body from his rear-facing car seat situated behind the driver’s seat. A day-care worker, who also called 911, tried to perform CPR. When she realized it was futile, she too dissolved into wails.
The cause of death was determined to be “death by hyperthermia due to environmental exposure/accident.”
It was a chaotic, gut-wrenching scene. …
The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten, in his Pulitzer winning piece from 2009, “Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Back Seat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?,” chronicles similar cases in which “an otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just … forgets a child is in the car.”
Some people will demonize parents for such forgetfulness, while others will be sympathetic. But the more we are all educated about this hazard and appreciate its frightful consequence, the more it will hopefully weigh on our minds to prevent it from happening.
“One-hundred percent of heatstroke deaths of children in cars are preventable,” Null writes.
He provides the following tips:
NEVER LEAVE A CHILD UNATTENDED IN A VEHICLE. NOT EVEN FOR A MINUTE !
IF YOU SEE A CHILD UNATTENDED IN A HOT VEHICLE, CALL 911.
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. Teach children that vehicles are never to be used as a play area.
IF A CHILD IS MISSING, ALWAYS CHECK THE POOL FIRST, AND THEN THE CAR, INCLUDING THE TRUNK.
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, briefcase or cellphone 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 child-care provider will call you if your child does not show up for school.
The infographic below is instructive. Please share it.