July 21, 2017
A report I read this week said that over 700 children have died from being left in hot cars in between 1998 to 2016. At an average of 38 preventable deaths per year, or more than 1 death every 10 days, these statistics are both staggering and heartbreaking. The terror of these situations continuing to happen naturally begs the questions, “what parent leaves their child in the car?”, “why?” and, “how do we stop this?”
It is easy for us to immediately think of the highly publicized cases where parents intentionally do this to their children. The idea of purposefully leaving your child in a hot car is unimaginable. But here’s what we must remember: according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), only 17% of these deaths are intentional.
The majority of children dying in hot cars are simply forgotten.
In his investigative article for the Washington Post titled Fatal Distraction, Gene Weingarten researched parents across the nation who lost their child after leaving them in the car.
“What kind of person forgets a baby? The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.”
It even happened to the CEO of a hospital. Kari Engholm was supposed to take her baby, Clare, to daycare that day instead of her husband who usually dropped her off. Clare was sleeping in the car when Kari got started with her busy work day at the hospital. It wasn’t until Kari picked up her older son from his daycare at the end of the day that she realized that Clare was tragically left in the hot car all day.
When children are left in hot cars, their body temperature rapidly rises. A child’s body overheats 3-5 times faster than an adult. While I see parents all the time who are concerned about brain damage from infectious fevers (ie, an illness), this isn’t the case. However, children do sustain brain damage and even death from heatstroke, or what we refer to as hyperthermia. According to the CDC, when temperatures outside range from 80 degrees to 100 degrees, the temperature inside a car parked in direct sunlight can quickly climb to between 130 to 172 degrees. Children have died from heatstroke in cars with temperatures outside as low as 60 degrees.
David Diamond, Professor of Molecular Physiology at University of South Florida has interviewed several parents whose children have died after being left in cars. He gives this wise warning to other parents,
“Memory is a machine, and it is not flawless. Our conscious minds prioritize by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you are capable of forgetting your cell-phone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child.”
Tragedies like this make my heart sink. It truly can happen to anyone. I have written about parents making devastating mistakes before, and how we should response to these heartbreaking situations. While the thought of forgetting a child in the car may at first seem so easy to pass judgment on, we must refrain from doing so.
That thought that this could never happen to you is in and of itself is dangerous. I work with wonderful, loving, caring parents who make mistakes every day. No parent is perfect. Don’t allow yourself to believe you are above making a forgetful error like this.
1. Never leave your child alone in a car. Even if you are just running into the store, or back into the house to grab something you forgot, take your child in with you.
2. Lock your car when you aren’t in it, to make sure no child gets in your car without you knowing.
3. Be as present as possible. We must stop the glorification of busy. Multi-tasking isn’t necessarily a good thing.
4. Try not to use your cellphone in the car. Besides the obvious risk of not being as focused on the road, cellphones make it possible to work before we even get to work, and continue working after we leave. They demand our attention by making us problem solve or allow us to drift off into daydreaming. This culture of mental multi-tasking nearly 24/7 can easily lead to forgetfulness and fatigue. While we naturally tend to downplay those symptoms in ourselves, they truly can have tragic results. We have to keep our distractions in check.
5. Always put your purse, briefcase, or other item you need when you get out of the car in the backseat by your child’s car seat. This will help you to check the backseat and remember you have your child with you, especially on days when you are not following your usual routine.
6. Don’t put your child in a front-facing car seat too early. While it seems like this would help you see your child from the driver’s seat, it’s important to follow the AAP guidelines and keep your child in a rear-facing car seat until they are too tall or too heavy for their convertible car seat – until they are at least 2 years old, but preferably longer. Research has shown that 2 year olds were five times safer riding rear-facing than 2-year old riding forward facing. The risk of being injured in a car accident is much higher than the risk of forgetting your child in the car. I understand that, from the driver’s seat, a rear-facing car seat looks the same whether a child is in it or not, but it is still the safest option for your child.
7. If you see a child alone in a car, call 911 immediately. This call could save a child’s life. Emergency personnel are trained to respond to these situations. While some states offer legal protections for a Good Samaritan who breaks a car window to save a child who is locked inside a hot car, you should consult with emergency personnel in the moment and follow their directions.
One last thing: love on parents with little children. Bring them food, offer to help when you can, especially if they have recently welcomed a new baby. This can be an especially exhausting season. Helping hands are an extra blessing. You never know how much good you are doing in someone’s life by being available and supportive.
For more information on preventing these tragedies in hot cars, visit the organization Kids and Cars.
Author: Dani Stringer, MSN, CPNP, PMHS – founder of KidNurse and MomNurse Academy