Children and pets are dying of heatstroke at a record pace this year. They are suffocating in vehicles with closed windows that allow temperatures to rise to as much as 130 degrees. This is still September and 40 children have already lost their lives. They range in age from two months to five years old. During 2010 there were 49 recorded deaths from vehicular heatstroke. With more than three months remaining in 2013 it appears we will surpass the previous record.
These stories are always tragic. As headlines assault us with details of yet another toddler accidentally forgotten in a locked vehicle, the inevitable questions swirl around how and why.
Too many people are quick to condemn the parents and caregivers suffering through the loss of a child lost in this cruel manner. When a story appears it is usually followed self-righteous indignation and the inevitable comment stating, "I could never forget my child in a locked car!"
It isn't that we don't recognize that parked cars can be killers, particularly during warm months. We know that. It is simply we don't want to recognize the reasons these deaths keep occurring is much more complicated than parenting or forgetfulness.
No matter how sophisticated our lifestyles are with intelligent cell phones, wireless tech devices, social networking and the like we are deluding ourselves into thinking loosing a child like this couldn't possibly happen to us! We don't want to acknowledge our own human frailties and we don't want to acknowledge that our minds play tricks on us all the time.
We instinctively know many of these deaths are preventable and unnecessary, but unless we understand the underlying reasons behind the behavior, these deaths are going to continue to escalate.
Fifty-two percent of the children that die of heatstroke are accidentally left in a car. Thirty percent climb into a vehicle on their own and 17 percent are purposely left inside. There is no reliable way to record close calls nor do we have accurate numbers on children who suffer permanent brain damage from prolonged exposure to heat while in a locked vehicle.
Consider that prior to 1990s, very few children died from heatstroke. The primary reason being toddlers and children sat in the front with the driver. After high-powered airbags killed 184 children, safety regulators pushed parents to move children to the back seat. The statics bear out the unintended consequences of the decision to move kids from the front to the back seats of vehicles.
Here's the most significant point; safety experts also urged parents to make car seats rear facing for children less than two years old. The old adage of out of sight out of mind aptly applies. Combine this driver reality with overwhelmed and overworked parents, stressed out with last minute schedule changes and the like and you have perfect storm for disaster.
The following are misconceptions about kids, cars, and heatstroke that should not be overlooked.
- This only happens during the summer months. In a word, wrong. According to statics complied by the San Francisco Department of Geosciences these deaths take place as early as February and as late as December. January is the only month that hasn't registered a death from heatstroke.
- This can only happen when the temperatures are over 70 degrees. Wrong again; when the temperature outside is as low as 55 degrees a child or pet can be in peril in a locked car. Temperatures inside a vehicle with closed windows rise very rapidly. The warmer the temperature outside the greater the danger. A car can turn into a death trap in as little as 10 minutes.
- There's no way I could ever forget my child! Unless you are unique in all the world, a person who has never forgotten anything, under the right circumstances anyone can forget their child in a locked car. The greatest percentages of these accidents happen because of last minute schedule changes, false memory, lack of sleep and stress.
- The parents or caregivers must have been impaired with drugs or alcohol. This is rarely the case. The greatest percentage of parents involved were by all accounts caring, loving and devoted parents. Many are professionals. These are people from all walks of life and varying socio-economic situations.
- This only happens in certain parts of the country. Wrong again; these accidental deaths have occurred in 48 states. The states with the highest numbers of deaths are Texas, Florida, California, Georgia and North Carolina.
There are several very good organizations like Kids & Cars and Ray Ray's Pledge that are continually working to raise awareness of the dangers of heatstroke and to remind people to look before locking.
One possible solution is a new and decidedly low-tech car accessory, a steering wheel wrap, with a reminder message that the driver cannot fail to see before locking their vehicle.