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Turning Tragedy Into a Cause

Kids and Cars Don't Mix

WebMD Feature

May 21, 2001 -- Harrison Struttman loved to watch boats cruise along the Missouri River. The 2-year-old from St. Louis would take his eyes off the water just long enough to watch a train roar by. But his favorite pastimes led to his death after two toddlers playing in a nearby van shifted the vehicle into gear, allowing it to plunge down a hill and into Harrison and his mother.

"I heard a crash, and just remember seeing this van coming at us," says Michele Struttman. "I screamed for my nieces to run, and I ran to grab Harrison. My arms were stretched out when we were both hit head-on."

The van dragged Michele Struttman down to the riverbank, pinning her between the car and the ground. Emergency workers told her she might lose a leg.

"I just remember thinking, 'It will be OK; you will still have your arms to give Harrison a hug,' " she says. But she never got the chance.

Cars and Curious Kids a Dangerous Combination

In addition to crashes, children are at risk of abduction, hypothermia, heat exhaustion, or choking on objects when left alone inside two tons of steel machinery. It may seem too much trouble to unbuckle your child, put on his coat, and carry him inside when you are picking up your dry cleaning and can see the car from the door -- but one minute is all it takes for an innocent time-saver to turn disastrous.

Horror stories have made nationwide news.

A 4-year-old Phoenix boy died last year after climbing into a closed car and passing out. Temperatures in the car reached 150 degrees. The child had been in the car about 30 minutes, but could not get out because three door handles were missing.

A suburban Kansas City, Mo., boy died last year after his mother dashed into a sandwich shop, leaving him in the car with the keys in the ignition. She darted outside when she saw a thief jump into her car, but could not untangle her son from his seatbelt. The 6-year-old was dragged for miles before other motorists forced the driver, who had just been released from jail, to stop.

Struttman has dedicated her life to changing laws to discourage parents from leaving their children unattended in cars. The parents of the children in the Missouri van that killed her son were not charged or even given a ticket. Struttman effectively lobbied to change Missouri's law last year, and now is working to get other states to do the same.

"I don't understand, why would you take that unnecessary risk? Most people will not leave their handbags or cell phones in their cars, but they will leave their children," says Struttman, who co-founded Kids 'N Cars with Janette Fennell, of San Francisco, to spread the word. "Their handbags and cell phones are totally replaceable, but their children are not."

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