It is a heartbreaking headline that we see each and every summer…”Infant dies after being left in car.” On average 37 children die each year in the US as a result of being left in a hot vehicle, and in 2019, a record number of 51 children died from heat-related deaths after being left in hot cars. In 2020, during the public health emergency, 24 children lost their lives in hot cars, and in 2021 one child has died. As a parent, it is gut-wrenching and nauseating to even consider that such a tragedy could ever happen to you, but in the vast majority of these cases, these tragedies strike in very loving, caring, and “typical” families. Some may say “I could never forget my child, that just wouldn’t happen,” but can you guarantee that?
How many mornings do you leave your house and in a forgetful moment, think “Did I close the garage/turn off the coffee pot/lock the door?” How many times have you been preoccupied with thinking about a major presentation on the way to work? Have you gotten on your phone on your drive into work and become consumed with your conversation? And how many times has your usual morning routine been rerouted for one of a hundred different reasons? It is typically a change in the usual routine or a distraction that can be the culprit of forgetting about precious cargo. Perhaps Daddy is in charge of morning drop off when he usually just heads into work, or maybe you have a sick little one who is staying with grandma for the day, and she has plans to run errands all day and forgets that the child is in her care. Accidents can happen, even to those who think “that would never happen to me.”
Here is your science lesson for the day…on a sunny day, cars are a perfect demonstration of the greenhouse effect. The longer wavelengths of light from the sun get into your car by passing through the windows, but the energy and heat from these wavelengths cannot get out of your car. These trapped wavelengths of light are what raise the temperature inside your car. This is why your car will ALWAYS, no matter the time of the year, be hotter on the inside than it is outside when the sun is shining. It is estimated that the temperature in your car can rise by 20 degrees within 10 minutes. On a typical summer day here in the south, it is possible for your car to get to 125 degrees in a very short period of time. Even if you have the windows cracked, the temperature inside your car will still become dangerous very quickly.
You know the feeling of getting into your car at the end of the workday…it is SWELTERING within just a few seconds. I know my kiddos, and let’s be honest even myself, are screaming to “get the air on” just as soon as we get into the car during the summer. For children, their body temperature rises about 3-5 times faster than ours as adults which is why hot cars become even more dangerous for our littlest family members. Overheating for children can happen within minutes, and this can rapidly lead to heatstroke and death.
When thinking about how to prevent this tragedy from occurring, here are a few suggestions:
- Place something that you need for the day in the backseat with your child. This could be your purse or briefcase or even the shoe from your non-driving foot. Make it so that you have to open the back door before you can go about your day.
- Have something of your child’s in the front seat with you such as their diaper bag to serve as a reminder that they are in the car with you.
- Place a big stuffed animal in your child’s car seat. When you place your child in their car seat, move that stuffed animal to the front seat with you, again to serve as a visual reminder that your child is in the car.
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a campaign called “Where’s Baby? Look before you lock” and encourages parents to get in the habit of ALWAYS looking in the back seat before walking away from the car.
- Children are curious and love to play hide and seek games, so if your child is ever missing while at home, make sure that your car is one of the first places you look. They may think the car makes a great hiding place, but getting accidentally trapped in the car on a hot day could have a terrible outcome.
- Ask that your daycare or child’s caregiver always call you if your child hasn’t arrived by a set time during the workweek.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was technology that could let a driver know when a child was present in the car? Perhaps a device that connected to the buckle on the car seat and could also recognize if the car engine was turned off and then alert a parent that a child was still present in that buckled car seat. Creating safer environments for children when it comes to cars is nothing new to the auto industry. The LATCH system (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children system) was created as a way to more safely secure car seats. Trunk releases on the inside of the car are present on all vehicles, and by 2018, all cars were required to have backup cameras. All of these mandates by car manufactures were put into place as lifesaving measures to protect our children. So perhaps a similar device will be created that alerts the driver when a child is in their car seat, but at this time, no such technology exists, so for now parents must consider the above recommendations.
The idea of forgetting about your child in a hot car is not something any parent wants to think about. We may think that we would never make such a deadly mistake and it is simply not possible that you could “forget” your child, but I can almost guarantee this is exactly what parents who have experienced this devastation thought the day before their world came crashing down. I encourage all parents to be proactive in reminding yourself when children are in the car. Many of the steps above require no additional work on your part, but could save your child’s life.