Every year, dozens of children die of heat stroke after being left alone in hot cars. July and August are historically the worst months for hot car deaths, but the risks to children are not limited to the summer months. Even when it’s only 70° outside, the temperature inside a car can reach 115° in less than an hour, and leaving a window down is not enough to protect a child from heatstroke.
A child’s body heats up 3 to 5 times faster than an adult’s, so a hot car is far more dangerous to a child than it is to an adult. In addition, the body’s system for regulating its temperature is not fully developed in children, so children lack the internal ability to cool their bodies down as efficiently as adults.
A child’s body temperature can quickly rise to a dangerous level in a hot car, and a child can suffer life-threatening organ damage after just 15 minutes. If a child’s body temperature reaches 107°, death from heat stroke is imminent.
Child Heat Stroke Fatalities: A Startling Trend
Prior to the early 1990’s, children often rode in front seats, and child car heatstroke deaths were rare. When airbags became common, car seats were moved to back seats for safety. That’s when the phenomenon of parents forgetting their kids in cars began, and the number of child hot car deaths spiked dramatically. Many experts also link the rise in child deaths to the use of rear-facing car seats, which make children less visible and easier to forget.
The statistics are shocking: since 1998, the average number of children in the U.S. who die of heat stroke in cars is 37 every year. Statistics from KidsandCars.org
show that Pennsylvania has lost 11 children to heat stroke in cars from 1990 to 2013.
More than half of the 661 children who died in hot cars between 1998 and 2015 were left in cars because their caregivers forgot they were there. Most people assume that negligent parenting is to blame when a child is forgotten in a car, but many of the parents involved in the incidents were widely regarded as loving and devoted.
Experts report that a common factor in many of the “forgotten” child hot car deaths is a change in routine. Reports describe parents who thought that they had already dropped their children off for the day and did not realize they had left their children in their cars until it was too late. Scientists believe that the part of the brain responsible for habit memories overrides reality in these tragedies. Stress and sleep deprivation are often cited as contributing factors.
A Tragic Weekend of Hot Car Deaths
During a single weekend in July 2016, four children died in hot cars nationwide.
On July 22, heat stroke killed a 4-year-old in Pennsylvania
and a 3-year-old in Florida. A 2-year-old boy died in a hot car in Missouri the next day, and on July 24, heatstroke claimed the life of a 3-year-old in Texas.
The Pennsylvania tragedy occurred in Williamsport, where the regular caregiver of a 4-year-old girl left the child in a car all day. The woman normally took the child to daycare every morning, but on that day she forgot and went straight to work instead. According to the Williamsport police, the caregiver found the girl unconscious in her car at around 3:30pm, the end of her work day.
Emergency crews attempted to revive the child, who was transported to a nearby hospital where she died. The Williamsport police are calling the death a tragic accident, although they are not ruling out negligence. Assistant Police Chief Timothy Miller stated that the caregiver is remorseful and cooperating with the investigation. The high temperature in Williamsport was 97° on the day the little girl died.
Although criminal charges have not been mentioned, leaving a child alone in a car has been illegal in Pennsylvania since 1991. The law prohibits leaving a child under age 6 in a motor vehicle that is out of a person’s sight, and under circumstances that endanger the health, safety, or welfare of the child. The law does not specify an amount of time that a child can be left in a car, and it can be enforced in cases that do not involve injury to a child.
Preventing Hot Car Deaths
Last year, Walmart and Evenflo partnered to offer a car seat that reminds parents when a child is buckled in the seat
. The car seat has a sensor on the chest clip that syncs with a wireless receiver that plugs into a car’s diagnostic port. If a child is still buckled in the car seat when the ignition is turned off, the car sounds a series of tones to remind the driver that a child is still in the vehicle.
For years, child safety advocates have urged automakers to implement safety features to prevent child hot car deaths, and recently, GMC complied. The GMC Acadia SUV has a “Rear Seat Reminder,”
which is standard on its 2017 model. When the Acadia’s rear doors are opened and closed within 10 minutes of starting the vehicle or when it is running, the safety feature is activated. Then the next time the engine is turned off, the vehicle chimes and gives the driver a message that reads, “Rear Seat Reminder, Look in Rear Seat.”
However, the safety feature does not actually detect the presence of a child in the back seat. According to GM, the company plans to add the “Rear Seat Reminder” to many more of its models.
Child safety experts offer a number of tips to help parents prevent another hot car death:
- One tip is to create a reminder to check the back seat. Place an item that you always need, such as your cell phone or your wallet, in your back seat every time you drive. That will force you to open a rear door every time you park your car.
- A large stuffed animal can be an effective reminder too. Keep the stuffed animal in your car seat and move it to your front passenger seat every time you buckle your child into his safety seat. The stuffed animal in the front seat will serve as a visual reminder that your child is in his car seat.
- Another option is to use a smart phone app for your reminder. The Kars 4 Kids Safety App will remind you that your baby is in your back seat when you leave your car, and it is available on most smart phones.
Experts also recommend having a strict communication policy with your childcare provider. If your child does not arrive at daycare when you have not advised them of an absence, your childcare provider should be required to contact you immediately. Make sure your daycare knows that leaving a message is not sufficient, and that someone from the day care must speak directly to someone on your child’s contact list.
When Tragedy Strikes
No one is fully prepared when tragedy strikes their family, but the attorneys of Donaghue & Labrum are available to help you and your loved ones. You don’t have to endure the stresses of litigation alone. We will serve you with sensitivity and compassion, and we will fight to represent your best interests.
With more than 25 years of experience, the attorneys of Donaghue & Labrum have a proven history of success. You will have peace of mind knowing that you have our legal expertise on your side. Contact the law offices of Donague & Labrum today for a free consultation.