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Why they occur and how to prevent them

Why they occur and how to prevent them
Why they occur and how to prevent them

During a heat wave in the United States, a five-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl died after they were both left in their cars.

The 5-year-old was in Omaha, Nebraska, and was left in a hot car for seven hours, authorities said. Temperatures in Omaha reached 90 degrees on Wednesday when he was found unconscious outside his foster mother’s workplace. She was arrested and charged with child abuse by neglect resulting in death, ABC News reports.

In Marana, Arizona, outside Tucson, temperatures soared above 40 degrees on Tuesday when a father left his young daughter in the car for between 30 and 60 minutes, police Capt. Tim Brunenkant told ABC News. The father told authorities he left the engine and air conditioning running when he went into his house. When he came out, the 2-year-old was unresponsive and was pronounced dead at the hospital. Brunenkant called it a “heat-related tragedy.”

Child deaths from hot driving are often misunderstood. They typically peak in the summer, but “this is not a summer-only problem,” pediatrician Harvey Karp, MD, founder and CEO of Happiest Baby, tells Yahoo Life. Heatstroke, which occurs when a child is accidentally left in a car or gets into an unattended vehicle alone, is a year-round problem in several areas of the country.

What most people are concerned about, however, is how parents can unknowingly leave their child in the car. However, according to experts, this can happen to anyone.

“The public largely misunderstands the deaths and injuries of children in overheated cars,” Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsandCars.org, a national nonprofit child and pet safety organization, told Yahoo Life. “The majority of parents and caregivers are misinformed and would like to believe that they could never ‘forget’ their child in a car. The most dangerous mistake a parent or caregiver can make is to believe that leaving a child alone in a car could never happen to them or their family. In over half of the cases of overheated car deaths, the person responsible for the child’s death unknowingly left the child in the car.”

Fennell says it can be “very difficult” for people to accept important information about the dangers of overheating cars “because they think these messages don’t apply to them.” However, she adds: “In an overwhelming majority of deaths of children in overheating cars, it was a loving, responsible parent who unknowingly abandoned the child.”

Here’s what parents and caregivers need to know about deaths caused by overheated cars and how to prevent them.

The number of child deaths in hot cars has increased over the years. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a child dies of heat stroke about every 10 days after being left in a hot car.

They can happen when a parent unknowingly leaves their sleeping child in the car or when young children are trapped alone in an unattended vehicle, such as one parked in the family garage or driveway.

The vast majority (87%) of child deaths in overheated cars occur in children ages 3 and under, according to Fennell. Of these, 54% involve children ages 1 and under. “Rear-facing child seats do not look any different to the driver when they are occupied or empty, which can lead parents to think the child is no longer in the car with them,” Fennell explains.

The majority (68%) of children who gain access to an unattended vehicle on their own are boys, and most are between the ages of 1 and 4, Fennell said.

Because babies and toddlers’ bodies are still developing, they don’t respond to heat the same way adults do, Karp explains.

“A child can overheat up to five times faster than an adult,” he says. “This is because young children, and especially babies, have extra fat under their skin – which acts like an insulating blanket – and they have less skin surface to allow for sweating and loss of body heat. So they just have a lot of difficulty dealing with excessive heat.”

He adds: “In addition, babies and young children dehydrate more quickly than adults.”

Even if it’s not hot outside, temperatures inside the car can get dangerously high, even with the windows slightly open. Fennell points out that “we’ve documented deaths in hot cars where the outside temperature was as low as 13 degrees.”

Karp explains: “Because adults can regulate their temperature better – and we can open a window, turn on the air conditioning or cool down with a sip of water – it’s easy to forget how dangerous a hot car can be for little ones. Even with the windows open, the temperature inside the vehicle can reach 50 degrees Celsius in just a few minutes!”

He explains that in the dark interior of a car and with no ventilation, “dangerous heat can build up even when the outside temperature is moderate,” adding: “In fact, research shows that the temperature in a closed vehicle can rise to over 38 degrees within an hour when the outside temperature is only 16 degrees Celsius.”

The key to preventing these deaths is technology, education and awareness, says Fennell.

Starting with General Motors in 2017, some automakers offer a rear seat reminder system on certain models. When a car’s rear door is opened — presumably to let a child, pet or perishable food in — the car alerts the driver to check the back seat once the car is parked and the engine is turned off. But Fennell says the system doesn’t detect whether there’s actually an infant or child in the car. “It just lets you know you opened that rear door,” she says.

Some automakers are adding more targeted safety features to alert drivers to children and even pets in the back seat. Toyota’s “Cabin Awareness” technology, for example, uses a 4D radar sensor to detect people and pets in the car – and even senses “micro-motions such as the occupants’ heartbeat, movement and breathing.”

In the meantime, parents and caregivers can take simple steps to keep their children safe. Fennell recommends making it a habit to open the back door — not just turn around to look while you’re in the driver’s seat — and check the back seat when you arrive at your destination. “It takes three seconds to make sure no one is left behind,” she says.

Another option is to put something important in the back seat, such as your purse, laptop or employee ID. This way you can keep it out of reach so you have to open the back door to get it. Or, Fennell says, parents could put a stuffed animal, such as a teddy bear, in the car seat. “When the baby is in the car seat, put the stuffed animal in the front seat,” she advises. “If the bear is in the front, the baby is in the back.”

She also suggests making arrangements with your child care provider to call if you don’t drop off your child that day. If the child isn’t dropped off and there’s no call, you can ask the child care provider to call an emergency number. If this were a more common practice, “one call could have literally saved hundreds of lives,” Fennell says.

Since nearly a third of deaths from overheated cars are caused by children getting into the car alone, Fennell recommends keeping cars locked at all times, especially in the garage and driveway. People may be more inclined to lock the car more relaxed when it’s parked at home, “but that’s where they get the keys,” says Fennell, who notes that children may press the button to unlock the car “because they’ve seen you do it so many times. Don’t leave your keys within reach of children.”

Fennell also recommends teaching young children that if they get stuck in their car, they should honk the horn to get help.

If a child goes missing, experts say it’s important to immediately check any nearby bodies of water, such as swimming pools. “Then you have to check the inside of the car – I mean the floor, the trunk, everything around it,” says Fennell.

If you see a baby or child alone in a vehicle, experts advise taking immediate action. “Call 911 immediately,” Fennell advises. “If the child appears hot or ill, get them out of the vehicle as quickly as possible.”

This article was originally published on July 26, 2023 and has been updated.

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