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By Erica Thomas and Craig Monger
A child sits, strapped in a car. It’s 80 degrees outside, but a little cooler inside the vehicle. But it isn’t long before the sun, beaming down on the car, turns it into a death trap.
The mother was busy. The child is dead.
Every year, children become victims of hot car deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) calculated a record number of deaths in 2019 when 53 deaths occurred.
Just this week, across state lines, a three-year-old in Georgia died after being left in an SUV for over three hours. Two days later, a Virginia man left his 18-month-old baby in his car while he was at work. After finding the body of the child, the man committed suicide.
In the summer months, even mild temperatures can lead to hot car deaths. Children have died from heatstroke in vehicles with temperatures as low as 60 degrees, and cracking windows does not help slow the heating process. Experts say vehicles heat up fast. Some 80% of the increase in temperature happens in the first 10 minutes of a car being parked.
A lot of times, parents or loved ones change their schedules or normal routines, and that can be deadly.
According to Deputy Chad Whaley, Director of Communications with the Cullman County Sheriff’s office, total awareness and lack of distraction is paramount to avoid accidentally leaving children in cars.
“Just trying not to get so caught up in life is the biggest issue,” Whaley said. “A lot of times, obviously, I don’t think there’s intent to harm anybody, but you get so caught up in everyday life that you end up forgetting literally the most important things.”
Jan Null has been tracking vehicular heatstroke deaths since 1998. He said more than half of hot car deaths are children under 2 years old, and most of those deaths happen on Thursdays or Fridays – the end of the work week.
Jefferson County Coroner Bill Yates said since 1983, his county has seen three hyperthermia cases of young children. Those cases were of an 11-month-old in 2013, and a three-year-old and a one-year-old in 2017. Yates said a small child’s body is unable to efficiently cool down the body, so they are more susceptible to dying of heatstroke.
“They cannot change their external environment,” said Yates. “That’s obvious. They can’t open a door, they can’t open a window, they can’t de-clothe, they can’t turn on the air conditioning…But they’re still developing. So, just like other processes after an infant is born, their systems are not fully matured, so they don’t have the ability to respond internally like an adult or a teenager would be able to.”
Yates explained that a baby’s thermal regulatory system is not fully developed. In fact, a child’s body overheats 3‐5 times faster than an adult body and they have very little ability to sweat.
Heat exhaustion occurs first, causing intense thirst, weakness, discomfort, anxiety, dizziness, fainting and headache. When body temperature reaches more than 104 degrees, heatstroke can occur. The result is neurological symptoms such as delirium, convulsions, coma and possibly death.
When someone becomes hyperthermic, the cells in the body are starved of what they need to function, impacting the brain’s ability to communicate to the rest of the body. Yates said this wreaks havoc on the body.
“Ultimately, the heart is probably the only organ that is impacted so quickly it would cause death,” Yates said.
On top of the initial trauma of losing a child left in a hot car, criminal charges are always possible when a child dies, according to Whaley. Leaving a child unattended in a car for any length of time is considered a misdemeanor, even if the child is not injured.
Negligent homicide or various other forms of these crimes are possible if the person leaves the youth in the car for an extended time, such as over an hour. More extreme charges are possible if the young person is in the car for over four hours in the heat or without any water or way of escape. However, without additional factors in the case, the local law enforcement may not have enough evidence to press charges.
“Any time there is a death, until it’s been ruled otherwise, it is considered a crime scene,” Whaley said. “Whether it’s an accident, intentional, self-inflicted or whatever the circumstances."
Whaley said those circumstances determine the next step.
“The District Attorney, and the responding agency, and whoever is working the scene determine if there is enough probable cause, and only then would an arrest [be made].”
KidsandCars.org, an advocacy group for protecting children from injuries and tragedies related to motor vehicles, has compiled statistics on vehicular heatstroke deaths of children. The organization says in most cases, children are left in the car by a loving adult by accident. You can view those numbers by clicking here.
It could happen to anyone, but there are tips to help prevent a hot car death from KidsandCars.org:
Make it a habit of opening the back door every time you park to ensure no one is left behind.
To enforce this habit, place an item that you can’t start your day without in the back seat: employee badge, laptop, phone, handbag, etc.
Ask your child care provider to call you right away if your child hasn’t arrived as scheduled.
Clearly announce and confirm who is getting each child out of the vehicle. Miscommunication can lead to everyone thinking someone else removed the child.
Also, make sure there is no way your child is able to get into your parked car on their own.
Never leave children alone in or around cars; not even for a minute.
If a child goes missing, immediately check the inside passenger compartments and trunks of all vehicles in the area very carefully, even if they are locked. A child may lock the car doors after entering a vehicle on their own, but may not be able to unlock them.
If you see a child alone in a vehicle, get involved. Call 911 immediately. If the child seems hot or sick, get them out of the vehicle as quickly as possible.
Be especially careful during busy times, schedule changes and periods of crisis or holidays. This is when many tragedies occur.
Use drive‐thru services when available (restaurants, banks, pharmacies, dry cleaners, etc.) and pay for gas at the pump.
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