As my daughter and I dodged shredded tire treads on the freeway on the way to her oboe lesson, they reminded me that warm weather is here to stay and we should be cognizant of who is in the car at all times. As temps go up outside, they can climb even faster inside and anyone who is vulnerable—child, elderly person, or pet—can succumb to heat stroke in a short amount of time. Even moderate outside temperatures can produce deadly vehicle interior temperatures and cracking a window isn’t enough to air out the car.
When a vehicle is in the sun, it starts to heat up. We’ve all felt this when we’ve sat in a car with the engine off. What happens is the sun shines through the transparent windows and heats the surfaces in the car. The radiation from the sun touches the dashboard, steering wheel, and other solid objects, as well as floating air molecules we can’t see. Conduction works to heat the interior surfaces of the vehicle up quickly and convection moves the air molecules around faster and faster, causing them to heat at a rapid rate. Even leaving the windows down a crack doesn’t help because of the conduction heating the surfaces; the surfaces heat up, which cause the air inside to heat as well. What about a cloudy day where the sun’s rays aren’t shining through the windows? Let me tell you about the worst sunburn I ever got—on a cloudy day. The radiation from the sun still comes through the clouds and can heat that vehicle up.
The SUV in the picture below was left in the sun on a very pleasant morning for about a half hour. During that time, while the outside temperature was 66º, the inside temperature rose to 128º. The vehicle was set up for my Safe Kids coalition’s press conference and rescue demonstration kicking off our Heatstroke Awareness Campaign.
A child left in the vehicle is at serious risk for heat stroke or death. Heat stroke is when the body’s temperature rises above 104º. A child’s body temperature rises 3-5 times faster than an adult’s and symptoms of heat stroke include red, hot, moist or dry skin, lack of sweating (their bodies have reached a point where they can’t cool down on their own anymore), headache, dizziness, confusion, and nausea. When a child’s body reaches 107º, their organs will shut down and death most likely will occur.
As much as we try to educate parents not to leave their children in vehicles, last year there were 30 children who died left in vehicles. Some of these deaths were accidental and some were intentional. It’s the accidental deaths where we can make an impact by making a few changes in our habits. But habits are hard to change and we have to be intentional in changing them. Can you imagine being this guy, who accidentally left his sleeping child in his SUV at the train station parking lot and remembered her when he got into the city? That had to have been the longest train ride back out to get her.
Time and again, a break in routine has been the reason a child has been left behind in a vehicle. The parent with the child is doing something out of the ordinary and forgets that the child is in the car or a daycare provider is overwhelmed with the number of children in the van and forgets the quiet one. From 1998-2014, 53% of children who died from heatstroke in vehicles were forgotten about by their caregivers. During that same time period, 29% were children who accidentally locked themselves in a vehicle while playing, and adults intentionally left 17% in the vehicle.
How can we address this problem and prevent it from happening again? First, we can stop blaming the victims and recognize everyone has the potential to forget their child. Sleep deprivation is a serious problem at some point for everyone who has a child and it can make your brain act in ways it normally wouldn’t. Laws may help dissuade caregivers who casually leave their children in vehicles as they run errands or get manicures, but they aren’t going to make a difference for those who forget their children. If you forget a child, you’re not going to remember them because of the threat of going to jail. Nineteen states have laws regarding unattended children in vehicles. Second, let’s be proactive, both as parents driving our children and as community members. Look in the car next to you as you get out to make sure a child, pet, or elderly person wasn’t left behind. Look in your business parking lots on broiling hot days AND teeth-chattering cold days. Safe Kids Worldwide gives us this handy acronym to help us remember to ACT to save lives:
A: Avoid heatstroke by never leaving a child alone in a car and by locking your vehicle so a child can’t get trapped inside accidentally.
C: Create reminders for yourself by putting your cellphone or wallet in the back seat next to the carseat. Also have your daycare provider call you and your significant other when the child is late or absent from daycare.
T: Take action if you see a child alone in a vehicle. This is an emergency and emergency personnel want you to call 911. Be cautious about breaking a vehicle window because you or someone else could be injured.
Thanks to Jan Null, CCM, San Jose State University for providing data and studying this topic for so many years!