It seems almost inconceivable, yet, tragically, it has happened more than 500 times. What are we talking about? Children who have died of heatstroke while in a parked automobile. Leaving a child in a car alone is not a wise idea on the face of it, but it seems almost impossible that an adult could leave a child in an enclosed car long enough for the heat inside the car to prove fatal. Yet, according to Safe Kids USA, it happens 38 times a year on average. While some adults have intentionally left their children in vehicles for long periods of time, in more than half the reported incidents the driver was so distracted or forgetful that she or he simply left the child in the car without thinking when arriving at the destination. A preventable tragedy was the result in every case.
Heatstroke, an acute and sometimes fatal form of hyperthermia, occurs from prolonged exposure to excessive heat or a combination of excessive heat and humidity. In such an instance the body’s heat-regulating mechanisms -- sweating, for example -- cannot deal with the heat gain, resulting in body temperature spiraling out of control. Children are at a great risk for heatstroke since their bodies heat up three to five times faster than adults’. Leaving a child in a closed car unattended for just a few minutes can result in heatstroke.
“Don’t be fooled into thinking that this can never happen to you,” says Reggie McKinnon, a father who accidentally left his 8-month-old in a vehicle last year during a workday. “Unfortunately, I did. Before this accident, every time I would read of a child dying in a parked car of hyperthermia, I too would ask, ‘How could they forget their child? I would never do that. That only happens to people who are uneducated, drunk, drug addicts; not me.’”
Yet it did happen to him, and it can happen at any time. This summer has been especially hot and humid in many areas, but even if the weather cools off, it doesn’t mean the risk vanishes.
“These tragedies happen more often than one would think, even at temperatures in the low 50s,” said Meri-K Appy, president of Safe Kids USA. “And unfortunately, the number of heatstroke deaths from children being unattended in vehicles is trending upwards. As of today, 500 children have fallen victim to this tragedy. That’s why our goal is to create awareness and educate the millions of drivers on ways to stop these heartbreaks.”
Here’s what parents and caregivers need to do:
Lock cars and trucks
Thirty percent of the recorded heatstroke deaths in the U.S. occur because a child was playing in an unattended vehicle. These deaths can be prevented by simply locking the vehicle doors to help assure that kids don’t enter the vehicles and become trapped.
Many child heatstroke deaths occur because parents and caregivers become distracted and exit their vehicle without their child. To help prevent these tragedies, parents can place a cell phone, PDA, purse, briefcase, gym bag or something that is needed at their next stop on the floor in front of a child in a backseat. This will help you see your child when you open the rear door and reach for your belongings. In addition, set the alarm on your smartphone as a reminder to drop your child off at day care, and set your computer calendar program to ask, “Did you drop off at day care today?” Establish a plan with your day care so that if your child fails to arrive within an agreed-upon time, you will be called within a few minutes. Also, be especially mindful of your child if you change your routine for day care.
To prevent a tragic situation as it is occurring, dial 911 immediately if you see an unattended child in a car. EMS professionals are trained to determine if a child is in trouble. Children are much more vulnerable to heatstroke than adults, so check inside vehicles and inside their trunks first if a child is missing.
Tom Ripley is a Driving Today contributing editor who writes about luxury automobiles and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.
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