Memorial Day is the symbolic start of summer. The school year ends for most children. Families plan their summer vacations. And, across America, statistics tell us that dozens of children will die when left alone in hot vehicles.
It pains me to be the bearer of such alarming news. But in 2010, according to the Department of Geosciences at California’s San Francisco State University, the United States set a grim record; 49 children nationwide died last year of hyperthermia while shut in a sweltering car. That figure was up sharply from 33 such deaths in 2009. Statistics show that from 1999 to 2010, the United States reported 496 hyperthermia deaths of children left in vehicles – that’s about 41 fatalities per year.
Sadder still, these deaths are completely preventable. Parents should simply never leave their child unattended in a vehicle, even if they expect to only be away from the car for a minute or two. Even if it doesn’t seem terribly hot outside, temperatures inside a car can spike quickly, and a child’s thermoregulatory system is less efficient than an adult’s.
The American Meteorological Society warns that a car in direct sunlight, without ventilation, can reach interior temperatures exceeding 158 degrees Fahrenheit. Emergency medical experts say that temperatures in a closed car can reach 110 degrees even when the temperature outside is only in the 60s.
Steve Amburn of the National Weather Service said recently: “A car that’s closed up is like an oven that will bake just about anything.”
According to a child-safety advocacy group KidsANDCars.org, a child’s body temperature warms at a rate three to five times faster than an adult’s, making kids particularly susceptible to the ill effects of heat, including death. A core body temperature of 107 degrees Fahrenheit is considered lethal, the group says. Cells are damaged. Internal organs begin to shut down.
Since 2008 it has been illegal in Oklahoma to leave a child unattended in a motor vehicle. Nevertheless, Tulsa police in 2010 responded to 146 calls regarding children left alone in vehicles (and another 35 complaints about pets closed in cars).
Thus, early in May, AAA Oklahoma, law enforcement, medical, safety and child advocacy representatives gathered in Tulsa to repeat their warnings to parents, grandparents and caregivers of children: Never leave a child alone in any vehicle. The campaign offered a list of safety tips, which the Oklahoma Insurance Department has adapted here and which I wholeheartedly endorse:
- Never leave a child or pet in an unattended vehicle, even if the windows are tinted or rolled down.
- Make sure all children exit the car when you reach your destination.
- Put a purse, shopping bag or cell phone in the back seat with your child, prompting you to look into the back seat once the vehicle is stopped. Also, consider opening the glove compartment or flipping down the passenger side visor to remind you that a child is riding along in the back seat.
- Keep the car and trunk locked when parked at home so children can’t get inside to play.
- Never leave car keys where a child can get them and gain access to a vehicle unsupervised.
- If you see a child or pet inside any unattended vehicle, call 911 immediately.
I would add to this list one simple piece of advice: Wherever you’re going and whatever you’re doing in a vehicle, put your children first. Don’t “just run inside the store” even if “only for a minute.” Never let your cell phone conversation or carrying bags from the trunk allow you to forget that your child is strapped into a car seat behind you. If you travel with a child on board even once in awhile, get in the habit of looking into the back seat upon exiting the vehicle, even in cases when you’re traveling alone, just to prevent you from forgetting the child in the car when you aren’t.
Insurance helps pay for treatment when a family member is hurt or sick, but the biggest key to fully protecting your family is eliminating risk whenever possible, not just insuring against it. Child deaths inside overheated vehicles are absolutely preventable and Oklahomans must take every step to eliminate the risk.
For more information about the Oklahoma Insurance Department, to determine the licensing status of an agent or company, or to file a complaint about your policy or claims, visit us online at www.ok.gov/oid/ or call OID’s Consumer Hotline at 1-800-522-0071.