Kids and Hot Cars: The felony most parents have almost committed

How many times have you accidentally left your cell phone or wallet in your parked car?  What if it was your child, and it was 70 degrees outside?  How would you feel when you realized that your child had died of hyperthermia, sweltering in the rapidly rising heat inside your car?

On Friday, July 5th, 2013 three American children died of hyperthermia after being left in hot cars.  In all three cases it seems those responsible for the children forgot to drop them off at childcare.  They were ages 8 mo-3 years.  One mother realized her mistake when she returned to her car to commute home. Other mothers, who suffered the same tragedy before her, have actually driven to childcare centers to pick up their children, never noticing the dead baby in the back seat.

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 one 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 579 U.S. heatstroke deaths of children left in cars since 1998, averaging 37 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.  Twenty-nine percent 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 approximately 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.  Eighty-one percent resulted in convictions.   Only 7% involved drugs or alcohol.

Almost every parent I know has forgotten a child in a car at least once, even just for a minute or two.  I left a baby in a hot car once—she was asleep in the back seat when I returned from the grocery store.  I figured I’d get all the frozen stuff into the freezer and unload the car while she finished her nap.  Once the groceries were inside I put them all away before I remembered that my baby was still in the car.  Fortunately, my car was in a shaded garage and when I got outside all I found was a sweaty, sleeping baby.

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. 
  • 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 fit the seat.  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 awfully 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 let kids play unattended in a car, even if it is in your driveway.
  • Always lock you parked car so that your kids or other neighborhood kids don’t go inside to play or hide.  Kids can easily lock themselves into cars and get stuck.
  • 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. I am so thankful that this has never happened to me. I owe that to a hyper awareness of my surroundings and an obsession with my child’s safety. Now that she’s six, that’s leveled off somewhat but still remains high. I had a detachable car seat, which probably helped a lot (and boy was that thing heavy to haul around!). I’ve never understood how parents can manage to leave a child in a car for any period of time. Mine would get out and follow me, even if instructed to stay inside! lol Not to mention scream bloody murder the whole time.

    For older children, it’s important for them to understand the danger too. Great information and I had no idea the interior of a car would increase almost 20 degrees in 15 minutes on a mild day! In Texas, where the heat gets as high as 110 degrees, that means the interior is 130 degrees or more after sitting in the sun all day! No wonder my daughter gets so hot. Any suggestions for dealing with a hot car interior when you have to go somewhere? We’ve tried cracking windows, getting a reflector for the windshield, opening the doors to let it cool off inside before getting in but not always does that work if we’re in a hurry to get to an appointment. We don’t have any shaded parking in my complex unless you pay $25 a month for it. I’m starting to seriously think about it this summer.

    Love your great parenting articles!

  2. Kids are not supposed to be left in hot cars because they are weak. parent should therefore guide them and take good care of them.

  3. Ummm, I never ever left my daughter in the car. How can ANYONE leave their kid in the car? Even you?! 0_o “I want my baby to sleep” is such a pathetic excuse! FFS! It’s not about what the baby wants, it’s about keeping the baby safe! I’m not being judgmental – I’m letting you know that was irresponsible and the logic behind several baby deaths!

    Imagine if a patient told you “I left my baby in the car for 10 mins.” You would have a fit! Maybe even call CPS!

    I live in Texas and I bake cookies in the car on super hot days. (Yep, Im the type that leaves em’ on the dash for 8 hours so the oven wont heat up the house!). The cookies cook…on a good day they only have to stay in for 4 hours. Now imagine a baby in the car. 0_o

    IMO – This article sounds like your trying to justify your actions/ comfort yourself instead of facing the fact you forgot about your kid in the car. Bringing “everyone” into personal failures has a soothing effect for some people. Trust me…not a lot of people forget their kids in the car, otherwise, there would be more child heatstroke cases.

  4. No Baby Left In Car - FB says:

    It brings little joy to point fingers at those whose this tragic event/accident has happened to. But it brings much greater joy to be an active Baby Guardian. Please visit our FB page: No Baby Left In Car to find out what you can do if you run into a forgotten baby. Also, active everyday steps you can take to notice babies in these horrific circumstances.

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  1. [...] Kathleen Berchelmann lists some tips on what to do if you find a baby or young child left alone in a car. Don’t hesitate to call 911. It could save the life of that [...]

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