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Kids in hot cars – a deadly combination

July 02, 2014

Leaving a child in a hot car is a tragedy that is entirely preventable.

"A few minutes might not seem like a long time, but there are circumstances when it can mean the difference between life and death. As temperatures begin to heat up, children are at a serious risk for heat stroke when left alone even for a few minutes in a closed vehicle," said Mandi Summers, co-coordinator, Safe Kids of Western Mass. headquartered at Baystate Children’s Hospital.

By the numbers

Trends over the past few years indicate that these unfortunate and often deadly mishaps will probably rise in number again this year, says the National Safety Council. Already in 2014 there have been some 10 child deaths attributed to heatstroke from being left alone in a hot car.

According to estimates from San Francisco State University’s Department of Geosciences, there have been at least 615 heatstroke deaths of children left in vehicles since 1989. That’s an average of 38 deaths per year with more than half of the total number involving children under the age of two.

Also, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration claims heatstroke is the leading cause of non-crash, vehicle-related deaths for children under the age of 14.

Danger on a cool day

It doesn’t even have to be a scorching day for tragedy to strike, it can be relatively mild.

"Ever notice how your car can be nice and warm even on a cool day? That’s because the inside of a vehicle can rise 19 degrees above the outside temperature in just ten minutes. And, after an hour, the temperature inside and outside of a vehicle can differ by 45 degrees or more – even if the window is left open a crack," Summers said. "No one ever thinks this tragedy could strike them, and that is why it’s essential to get this message out, especially as the weather starts heating up."

Riskier for children

Heat is much more dangerous to children than it is to adults.

"When left in a hot vehicle, a young child’s core body temperature may increase three to five times faster than that of an adult, which could cause permanent injury or even death," said Dr. Ronald Gross, chief, Trauma, Acute Care Surgery and Emergency Surgery Services at Baystate Medical Center.

He noted heat stroke occurs when the core body temperature reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Symptoms can include dizziness, disorientation, agitation, confusion, sluggishness, seizure, hot dry skin that is flushed but not sweaty, loss of consciousness, rapid heartbeat and hallucinations.

"When anyone‘s core body temperature surpasses 104 degrees Fahrenheit to reach 107 degrees, the consequences are lethal," Dr. Gross said.

According to research conducted by San Francisco State University, more than half of these children were accidentally left behind in a closed, parked car by parents or caregivers, while nearly a third of these children were trapped while playing in a vehicle unattended. Sadly, one in five children who died were intentionally left in the vehicle by an adult.

Reduce number of heatstroke deaths

Safe Kids suggests remembering the word ACT:

  • A: Avoid heatstroke-related injury and death by never leaving your child alone in a car, not even for a minute, even if the window is left slightly open. And, make sure to keep your car locked when you’re not in it, so kids don’t get in on their own and play in the car.
  • C: Create reminders by putting something in the back of your car next to your child such as a briefcase, purse or cell phone that is needed at your final destination. This is especially important if you’re not following your normal routine.
  • T: Take action. If you see a child alone in a car, call 911. Emergency personnel want you to call. They are trained to respond to these situations. One call could save a life.