2014 Hot Car Deaths – How does this happen?

In the last two months five American children have died of hyperthermia in hot cars.  They ranged in age from 9-months to 2 –years-old.  Two were toddlers who climbed into unlocked parked cars and couldn’t get out.  One 2-year old was “playing” in the parked car for about 15-30 minutes before she was found dead from hyperthermia.  A family member was supposedly watching her while her mother changed her twin’s diaper.  Two had parents who went to work, forgot to drop children at childcare, and left their sleeping infants in the backseat.  Other mothers, who suffered the same tragedy, have actually driven to childcare centers to pick up their children, never noticing the dead baby in the back seat.

Have you ever forgotten your baby in the car?  I have.  Just last week my family arrived at a friend’s house for CarSeat1a party.  My husband offered to change our 2-year-old’s diaper before we went inside.  I said I’d be in charge of our other four children.  Our three oldest went tearing into the friend’s home, and I scrambled to follow, leaving our sleeping infant in the car where my husband was changing the 2-year-old.  About 15 minutes later we realized the baby was still in the car.  I panicked.  I knew she could be dead on this 80 degree day.  This was going to be my worst nightmare.  But it wasn’t.  She was asleep, a bit warm, but OK.  

In the 1990’s the pediatrics and automotive industries recommended that car seats be moved to the back seat to avoid airbag injuries, but no on anticipated the tragic reality that this move would cause.  Out of sight and asleep in the back seat, infants are regularly forgotten in cars.  To further improve safety, we’ve recommended that infants and toddlers remain rear-facing in their car seats until age two.   Now, with sleeping babies even less visible to drivers, these tragic deaths are becoming more common. 

These deaths have happened on relatively mild days, in northern climates, and to children ages 5 days-14 years.  Last week in Canada, not one but 2 toddlers died in hot cars.  A three-year-old girl died the same day as the funeral for Maximus Huyskens, who was just days shy of his second birthday. 

There have been 611 U.S. heatstroke deaths of children left in cars since 1998, averaging 38 deaths per year, according to Jan Null, a researcher at the Department of Geosciences at San Francisco State University.  In 52% of cases the child was forgotten by a caregiver.  29% were children playing in an unattended vehicle.  In only 18% of cases were children intentionally left in vehicles by adults. 

Even when outdoor temperatures are only about 70 degrees, vehicles heat up rapidly, within only 15-30 minutes, according to a study in the medical journal Pediatrics.  In ten minutes, the average rise in vehicle temperature was ~19 degrees F.  “Cracking” the window does almost nothing to prevent heat rise.  Children’s bodies are not able to tolerate high heat as well as adults. 

Who forgets about a baby in a car?  We all do.  Parents of every socioeconomic level have done this.  Professionals, stay-at-home parents, grandparents.  Good people.  Afterwards, many contemplate suicide.  One father tried to wrestle a gun from a police officer at the scene—to end his own life.  As if this suffering is not enough, 49% of caregivers responsible for these children are charged with a felony, according to a study by the Associated Press.  81% resulted in convictions.   Only 7% involved drugs or alcohol. 

Here’s what you can do to help prevent heatstroke deaths from children in vehicles:

  • ·         If you see a child alone in a car, call 911 immediately.  In many cases, several people saw these kids in the cars before they died, but never called for help. 
  • ·         Never let kids play unattended in a car, even if it is in your driveway.  Lock your car so that kids can’t get in to “play.”
  • ·         Use a detachable infant car seat that can be easily removed from the car without waking up a sleeping baby.  These are the kind of infant car seats that have an installed base and a detachable seat-part with a handle.  Many people call them “pumpkin seats” and they often come with strollers that the seat latches onto.  Convertible car seats, on the other hand, require that you unstrap your baby from the car seat and pick him or her up in order to get them out of the car.  It is awful tempting to let a sleeping baby keep sleeping if you can’t get them out of the car without waking them up…
  • ·         Leave a purse, wallet, cell phone, or work ID badge in the back seat of the car next to your baby, so that you have to check the back seat before you leave the car. 
  • ·         Never leave a child unattended in a car, even with the windows partly open.  Not even for a minute.
  • ·         Have a plan for your childcare provider or school to call you if your child does not arrive as scheduled.
Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D. About Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D.

Kathleen M. Berchelmann, M.D., is a pediatrician at St. Louis Children's Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, director of the St. Louis Children's Hospital Social Media Team, and co-founder of the ChildrensMD hospital physician blog. Her work has been featured in print and online publications including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Chicago Tribune, and TIME magazine. She is a frequent contributor to Fox2 News STL Moms. Kathleen and her husband are raising five children.

Follow Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann on Facebook: ChildrensMomDocs Twitter: @MomDocKathleen and connect with her on .

Comments

  1. As a carseat technician this is something I warn parents about when I do a check with them. Using a lightweight mirror (something that you wouldn’t mind being a projectile just in case) so you can see them is a good way if you’re comfortable with that of seeing a sleeping child in your seat. Get in the habit of checking your rear view mirror before you exit the car.

    This article mentions putting your bag next to the baby. Putting your bag in back is a good idea, but do NOT put it next to the baby. Put it on the floor of the backseat. Putting it next to the baby means it’ll be a projectile should you be hit from the side. Many people have bags weighing about 10 pounds, more if they have a laptop. If we go back to high school physics, F=ma, or more simply, force equals weight times speed. A 10 pound bag when involved in a 30 mph collision now weighs 300 pounds of force. Put it on the floor where it cannot hit your baby, but where you must go back for it.

    And remember, we are ALL creatures of habit. I left my 11 year old at school briefly (very briefly, about two extra minutes) six weeks ago because I was driving and talking to my four year old and I drove over a bridge I drive over about 100 times a month. But this time I had to go left to school whereas 99 times of those 100 I go right to go home. I went right and didn’t even think of it until a block later. I pulled a U turn and went and got my daughter, no harm (other than my four year old telling on me). I’ve had these kids a while. I knew I needed to go to her school and get her. That’s why we had left my friend’s house and were driving in the first place. But on autopilot I headed home. So for those who think it can’t happen to you, it can happen to any of us.

  2. Tim Casper says:

    While I agree wholeheartedly with spreading awareness of this danger, a little context is also important – I would not make calling 911 the very first impulse when you see any child alone in a car – evaluate the situation! Say this car is in the drug store parking lot. If the parent is right there, they can get the child out. If the child is older, they can likely open the door themselves.

    While there is a real danger when kids are left unattended, getting police (and then likely social services) involved when an older child is left intentionally, and briefly, in a car during mild temperatures can cause tremendous and unwarranted consequences. (http://www.salon.com/2014/06/03/the_day_i_left_my_son_in_the_car/).

    Looking at a compilation of 2013 heatstroke deaths from vehicle entrapment (http://www.ggweather.com/heat/hyperthermia2013.htm), the ambient temperature is generally 80 F or higher. This is not to take away from the fact that cars do get very hot inside on milder days, but being left alone for a few minutes in the car may not be reason to panick. School-aged kids are on the list very rarely. [The 7 year-old had autism, and the 14-year old could not open the car doors (probably a safety feature), and the horn was not working.]

    The rest of the tips are very helpful for avoiding the more dangerous situations where a young child or baby is forgotten in the car.

  3. Diana Potter says:

    This is NOT a “horrible accident.” The public’s sympathy for parents who leave their children in hot cars seems totally unwarranted to me. It reminds me, in terms of where we are now with the issue, of the way drunk drivers who caused deaths and injuries used to be treated: as if they couldn’t help themselves, poor things, so let’s go easy on them in the courts. No more. I can only hope that public sympathy for people who leave children to die hideous deaths in hot cars will change in the same way. These people are not taking proper care of their children, period. It’s no different from not feeding them, except it kills them faster.

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