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Unattended Children and Cars 

Hot Cars

A car’s windows act like a greenhouse, trapping sunlight and heat. A May 2004 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicated that approximately twenty-five children a year die as a result of being left or becoming trapped in hot vehicles.26 “Cars parked in direct sunlight can reach internal temperatures up to 131° F - 172° F (55° C – 78° C) when outside temperatures are 80° F – 100° F (27° C – 38° C).”27 Even outside temperatures in the 60s can cause a car temperature to rise well above 110° F. When the outside temperature is 83° F, even with the window rolled down 2 inches, the temperature inside the car can reach 109° F in only 15 minutes. “Within the first 10 minutes the temperature in an enclosed vehicle will rise an average of 19 degrees or 82 percent of its eventual one hour rise.”28 In warm weather, a vehicle can warm to dangerous, life-threatening levels in only 10 minutes.

Very young children (age 4 and under) are particularly susceptible to hyperthermia. According to the Medical College of Wisconsin,

Children’s bodies have greater surface area to body mass ratio, so they absorb more heat on a hot day (and lose heat more rapidly on a cold day). Further, children have a considerably lower sweating capacity than adults, and so they are less able to dissipate body heat by evaporative sweating and cooling.29

The Centers for Disease Control report that very high body temperatures can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs, as well as heat stroke and death. “Heatstroke occurs when the body temperature reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit;”30 essentially, “the body becomes unable to control its temperature: the body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down. Body temperature may rise to 106 degrees F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes.”31 A “body temperature of 107 degrees is lethal.”32 In many cases of hyperthermia, the child’s body temperature is reported to be 108 degrees, even an hour after they are discovered. It is important to note, however, that most thermometers will only measure temperatures up to
108° F. Therefore it is likely that the body temperatures of these children were well above 108° F.

Notwithstanding the obvious risk to children, caregivers continue to endanger them. In one survey, 25 percent of mothers interviewed admitted to leaving infants and toddlers in motor vehicles. Perhaps even more shocking, only one-third of these mothers favored leaving the windows half or fully opened.33 Some of these mothers apparently were more concerned about potential abductions than heatstroke.

In June 2000, a mother in New Jersey left her son in the car with the windows rolled up for two hours. During that time span, she checked on him several times without realizing the temperature of the vehicle was nearing deadly temperatures. On her final check, she found her son passed out. She rushed him to the hospital, but he later died of heatstroke. An hour after his death, the boy’s body temperature was 108 degrees. The temperature outside the vehicle was in the low 60s.34

Some of the most tragic incidents happen when adult caretakers forget a child is in the vehicle. This frequently happens when a parent or guardian breaks a well-established routine and leaves a child in the car. Many of these adults do not even realize that they left the child in the vehicle until hours later. These cases pose significant moral questions for prosecutors who face the dilemma of determining whether the tragedy of losing a child is sufficient punishment. Still, while we may prefer to label these deaths as “freak accidents,” their preventability belies this claim.35

In the summer of 2003, a postal worker in Essex County, New Jersey, forgot to drop his two sons at a day care center. The boys stayed in the car for approximately two and a half hours. Witnesses alerted the father to the situation. The father rushed the boys to a medical building, but it was too late. The boys died from heat exhaustion. The father was charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter and was ultimately sentenced to one year’s probation for the death of his two sons. United States Attorney Christopher J. Christie commented, “It is beyond understanding how anyone could be so careless, so preoccupied as to leave children forgotten in the back seat of a steaming-hot car. This was a preventable tragedy.”36

Not all children who die in hot cars are left there by adults. Many children climb into unlocked vehicles without their parents’ or guardians’ knowledge. Once in the car, they may become confused by the door handle’s configuration and be unable to open the door from the inside. Also, children may accidentally lock doors by leaning on a power control device and be unable to get out. According to a National SAFE KIDS Campaign survey, only half of all parents lock their cars when they park at home.37

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26 Non-Traffic Death and Injury Data Collection Study, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (May 2004)

27 Editorial Note, “Fatal Car Trunk Entrapment Involving Children – United States, 1987-1998,” 47 MMWR Weekly 1019 ( Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , December 4, 1998).

28 Department of Geosciences, San Francisco State University, “Fact Sheet.” Golden Gate Weather Services, June 17, 2004. ggweather.com/heat/.

29 “Preventing Heat Stress in Children and Adolescents.” Medical College of Wisconsin Health Link, July 23, 2001. healthlink.mcw.edu/article/963335058.html.

30 Department of Geosciences, San Francisco State University, “Fact Sheet.” Golden Gate Weather Services, June 17, 2004. ggweather.com/heat/.

31 “Emergency Preparedness & Response: Frequently Asked Questions,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 14 2004.

32 Department of Geosciences, San Francisco State University, “Fact Sheet.” Golden Gate Weather Services, June 17, 2004. ggweather.com/heat/.

33 K. Roberts and E. Roberts, The Automobile and Heat Stress; 58 Pediatrics 101 (July 1976).

34 “Tragedy Can Strike Quickly for Kids Left Alone in Cars,” Keep Kids Safe (Summer 2003), www.ockeepkidssafe.org/pdfs/IPP_news_Summer.pdf.

35 See, e.g,. A. Gathright, “Children’s Safety,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 29, 2001, at A4.

36 “Father Admits Causing Death of Sons by Leaving Them in Hot SUV,” PhillyBurbs.com, May 25, 2004, www.phillyburbs.com/pb-dyn/articlePrint.cfm?id=306169.

37 Don’t Leave Children Unattended in Cars.USAA Magazine. May/June 2001.

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