Turning Tragedy Into a Cause

Kids and Cars Don't Mix

6 min read

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.

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."

A survey conducted last year by the National Safe Kids Campaign found that 10% of parents believe young children can be left unattended in cars. Only 50% of parents reported always locking their cars at home. One out of five parents rarely or never does so.

"It's just a wrong perception," says Heather Paul, PhD, executive director of the campaign, which was founded to prevent unintentional childhood injury. "The car should always be locked, and the remote should not be accessible. One might jump into the front seat and play mom or dad and turn the key. It's just redoing the whole notion of how cars function for children. They're not a playground."

Unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death among children aged 1 to 21, the CDC reports. Motor vehicles are the major cause of fatal injuries for children, but that doesn't mean that only those in the car are in danger. In 1998, more than 20,000 children aged 15 and younger were involved in pedestrian injuries with motor vehicles. More than 500 died as a result. About one-fifth of the fatal accidents occurred in driveways and other nonpublic roads.

Dennis Bensard, MD, conducted a 6-year review of children's injuries after treating a number of children, crushed by cars in their own driveways. The study, published in the November 1998 issue of the Journal of Pediatric Surgery, found that children aged 5 and younger were 10 times more likely to be fatally injured in their driveways than in any other pediatric pedestrian accidents.

"There were kids who had gotten in the car and had disengaged the transmission and jumped out, or were knocked out by a sibling. ... We've seen all situations," says Bensard, associate professor of surgery and pediatrics at University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and director of trauma at the Children's Hospital, in Denver. "Auto pedestrian accidents are one of the most common mechanisms of injury in children."

Education and prevention are key to reducing the number of pediatric injuries, Bensard says. Legislation may dissuade some people from leaving their children alone with cars, he says, but mostly it is up to parents to use their common sense.

"Sometimes families don't understand the dangers and implications of some of their decisions," Bensard says. "It's just being irresponsible. We all fall into that trap, and have to be better disciplined."

Only 10 states have laws specifically regarding children left unattended in vehicles, yet most have legislation about leaving dogs in hot cars. At Struttman's urging, Illinois State Sen. John Cullerton, a Democrat from Chicago, introduced a bill earlier this year to punish parents for leaving their kids behind.

Most states, like Illinois, have laws regarding child endangerment, but nothing specifically about cars.

"Children are left in cars and are dying. That is something that is so serious, it needs to be addressed," Cullerton says. "We are working to discourage that type of activity."

Struttman also is targeting legislators in Kansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and California.

"You can't just let [parents] walk away and let them think what they did is OK," Struttman says. "They have to be reprimanded in some way."

  • Never leave children alone or unsupervised -- not even for a minute.
  • Never leave car keys where children can find them.
  • Always lock cars so children cannot get into a car unsupervised. Unlocked cars pose serious risks to children who are naturally curious and often lack fear. Keep the doors and trunk of cars locked when parked in the garage, driveway, or near home. Parked cars can be deathtraps for kids.
  • Crawl around in your family vehicle and look at everything from a child's perspective. Where are there potential problems? Do the automatic power windows controls "pull" to go up rather than being "pushed"? Does your vehicle have transmission or brake interlocks?
  • Teach children about the dangers of a car. A car is NOT a toy. In fact it can be as dangerous as a loaded gun, but weighs over two tons.
  • Arm children with facts. They must understand that a vehicle is used for transporting people from place to place; it is NOT a playground.
  • Car trunks become a tempting, secret place to hide, and a quick and easy place for abductors to make children disappear. Practice escape techniques so that if children are trapped in a car trunk, they know how to get out by yanking the tail light wires, kicking out the brake light fixture and signaling for help by waving or banging on the trunk and screaming.
  • If a car has a trunk release in the trunk's interior, make sure the children know how to use it and have them practice.
  • Never leave rear seats folded open. This should prevent children from climbing into unlocked cars and finding their way into a trunk from the inside.
  • Install an inside trunk release.

Kimberly Sanchez is a St. Louis freelance writer who has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Dallas Morning News.