How to prevent hot car deaths
Children from Florida and Georgia have already been victims this summer.
Guest Columnist Published: 7/31/2018
It’s one of the saddest tragedies, but we have seen it increase over the past twenty years — an average of 37 children annually die after suffering heatstroke in a vehicle from which they cannot escape. Since 1998, 772 children have died in the U.S. from vehicular heatstroke. Overall, Florida is second only to Texas in the number of deaths during this time frame. There have been two deaths in our state this year, and one in nearby Kingsland, Georgia, in June.
Victims tend to be among the youngest and most vulnerable, with babies less than one year old and one- to two-year-olds representing over half of the deaths. Statistics reveal that two- through six-year-old children are still at high risk and, surprisingly, children all the way to age 14 have been victims of vehicular heatstroke.
As parents, grandparents and caregivers, it is our duty to the children in our care to understand the risk factors that contribute to the problem, take those risks seriously and always use best practices to prevent harm.
First, children’s bodies heat up three to five times faster than adults because their temperature regulation is not as efficient, putting them at greater risk for heat-related illnesses, including heatstroke.
Second, although many deaths in hot cars do occur during the hottest months of the year, it doesn’t require a hot day to heat up the inside of a vehicle to dangerous temperatures. This misunderstanding can be fatal — deaths have occurred in temperatures as low as 72 degrees.
Hot car deaths are not due to the outside air temperature, but the sun heating up the interior of the car, increasing the temperature inside very quickly. Within 20 minutes, the inside of the vehicle heats up an average of 29 degrees and cracking a window was shown to have very little effect.
When a core body temperature of 107 degrees Fahrenheit or greater is reached, cells are damaged and internal organs begin to shut down. This chain of events can rapidly lead to death.
The experts at Safe Kids Worldwide, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NoHeatStroke.org and KidsandCars.org are working hard to educate the public about prevention of pediatric vehicular heatstroke. They urge all parents, caregivers and those that transport children to remember the following:
- Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle, even for a minute! Eighteen percent of hot car deaths occur because children were left alone in a hot car intentionally.
- 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. Twenty-seven percent of children killed in hot cars were playing alone in a vehicle or gained access themselves.
- Have a plan with your childcare provider to call you if your child does not show up for school. Fifty-four percent of children involved in vehicular heatstroke were left in the car unintentionally. This happens most often when routines change. For example, the parent who normally drops off at daycare before to work is preoccupied with going to the airport for travel instead, forgetting the daycare stop altogether. A call from your child’s caregiver could save a life when a change in routine occurs.
- Keep a stuffed animal in the car seat. When the child is put in the seat, place the animal in the front with the driver. Or place your purse, briefcase or cell phone in the back seat with your child. These make great reminders that you have your child in the car.
- Make "look before you leave" a routine whenever you get out of the car and always glance in the backseat for any young passengers.
- Be sure that all occupants leave the vehicle when unloading. Don't overlook sleeping babies.
- If a child is missing, always check the pool first and then the car, including the trunk.
- If you see a child unattended in a hot vehicle, call 911 immediately.
Hot car tragedies are preventable, but it will take all of us working together to spread the word so each parent and caregiver can make a difference for the children in their care. To learn more, visit wolfsonchildrens.com/safekids.
Cynthia Dennis, RN, is coordinator of Safe Kids Northeast Florida, led by THE PLAYERS Center for Child Health at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. Dennis leads numerous initiatives to educate the public about child safety, including drowning prevention, home safety and safe sleep practices for infants.