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Hot Cars and Children’s Heatstroke, a Deadly Combo

Car Seat

June 28, 2018 -- When a 7-month-old died in an overheated car in Georgia last week, he became the latest in what has become a tragic rite of summer.

Rhae Odum, 28, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and child neglect after leaving her son in the car in a hotel parking lot.

Unfortunately, this story isn’t an unusual one. According to NoHeatstroke.org, 760 children have died of heatstroke in cars since 1998. In over half of the cases, the child was left in the vehicle by accident.

According to the website, nearly 74% of the deaths have been in children ages 2 and younger. More than half the time the child is forgotten by a caregiver, but other situations are common:

  • 54% - child forgotten by caregiver
  • 27% - child playing in unattended vehicle
  • 18% - child intentionally left in vehicle by adult
  • 1% - circumstances unknown

Jan Null, a meteorologist at San Jose State University, created NoHeatstroke.org to track deaths of children left in vehicles. He has found that about 37 children die in overheated cars each year, or about one child every 9 days. Eighteen children have died in 2018 so far.

Null got involved with the research in 2001 after he was contacted as an expert when a father left his 5-month-old son in the car on an 86-degree day in San Jose, CA. Null began tracking temperatures in his vehicles, taking particular interest in how quickly temperatures rise. He also partnered with two Stanford University doctors to do research and produced a world-renowned article about the topic.

“My hopes are that this research will raise the level of interest and awareness about this sad topic and ultimately save some innocent lives,” he writes on his website.

Most of the incidents happen during the summer months of June, July, and August, but Null’s research shows that it can happen any time of the year.

Car interiors can heat up to 125 degrees within the first 20 minutes of sun exposure, even if the outside temperature isn’t that hot, says KidsandCars.org. On a 70-degree day, a car’s interior heats up to 104 degrees in the first 30 minutes. Cracking the windows does not decrease the maximum temperature and will not slow the heating.

Research shows that a child’s body overheats two to three times faster than an adult’s body.

Heatstroke starts when body temperature reaches 104 degrees. When someone develops heatstroke, they experience muscle cramping, nausea, unconsciousness, and elevated heart rate,” Null says. When the body hits a temperature of 107 degrees, organs start shutting down quickly.

Rising awareness of hot car deaths and high mortality rates have led to new laws in many states. In 2017, Congress introduced the Hot Cars Act, requiring all new passenger vehicles to include child safety alert systems, which would include auditory and visual alerts when a driver turns the car off. The bill has yet to pass into law.

Twenty-one states have Unattended Child in Vehicle Laws in place, but many have loopholes or exemptions.

According to NoHeatstroke.org,

  • Alabama's and Wisconsin’s laws only apply to paid child care providers.
  • Kentucky's and Missouri’s laws only apply if a child is injured or dies.
  • Florida allows a 15-minute period that a child can be left alone before it becomes a crime. Illinois allows 10 minutes. Hawaii and Texas allow 5 minutes.
  • Washington’s law only applies to a running vehicle.
  • Rhode Island’s law only requires a verbal warning, and no record of the incident can be kept.

“There are more states that have laws about leaving pets in cars than leaving children. That’s another avenue; there need to be more avenues that work to be part of the solution,” Null says.

According to Michigan State University’s Animal Legal and Historical Center, 28 states have laws that address animals left in hot vehicles.

While there is technological help for parents to prevent them from leaving a child in the car, Null says they are only aimed at parents who leave their children accidentally, which only represents 54% of cases.

Null says heatstroke in cars is completely preventable.

Expert safety recommendations include:

  • Never leave a child in an unattended car.
  • Be sure that all occupants leave the vehicle when unloading.
  • Always lock your car.
  • Keep a stuffed animal in the car seat. Move it to the passenger seat to remind yourself when the child is in the car.
  • Place a purse, briefcase, or cell phone in the back seat.
  • Get in the habit of looking around your car before getting out.

Many states have Good Samaritan laws in place, which protect people who take action to assist a child left in a car. If you see a child left in a car, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests:

  • Make sure the child is OK and responsive. If unresponsive, call 911 immediately.
  • If child is unresponsive, attempt to get into the car and assist the child, even if by breaking a window.
  • Try and get another person to locate the guardian.