Kids and Cars

The biggest killer of our youth today is not disease, not crime, but the automobile. While child pedestrian and bicycle deaths have declined 67 percent since 1975, the sad fact is that passenger vehicle occupant deaths among children were only four percent lower in 1997 than in 1975. This despite the fact that experts agree today's cars and trucks are significantly safer than those of 25 years ago. This despite the fact that mandatory seatbelt and child-seat laws are the norm across the country and that enforcement of those laws is growing ever-more stringent.

Motor vehicle deaths cause about one of every three injury deaths among children 12 and younger, and the raw numbers are sobering. Some 2,098 children under the age of 13 and 5,697 teenagers died in motor vehicle accidents in 1997.

Almost lost among the grim statistics is yet another type of auto-related child fatality that is even harder to understand - deaths of children in parked cars. Tragic as each instance is, fatalities from auto crashes have a certain inevitability about them. For every x millions of miles driven in two-ton projectiles capable of triple-digit speeds, it is somehow brutally logical that some deaths would result. But deaths of innocent children in parked vehicles are much more difficult to come to terms with.. Yet those deaths occur with remarkable frequency.

According to an organization called the National SAFE KIDS Campaign, last summer one child died every four days on average after being trapped in a parked automobile. The majority of these heat-related fatalities occurred in June and July. Shockingly, the group reports there have already been three known heat-related child fatalities within a two-week period this spring, before summer has even got officially underway. This is a tragic start to a summer season that the National Weather Service predicts will be warmer than usual across most of the country.

The individual stories are heartrending, and contrary to what you might guess, many of these tragedies are not the result of borderline parents putting their children at risk by simply leaving them in cars while they went about their business. Because of their nearly random nature, they are even more frightening.

Consider these two cases: On July 27, 1999, in North Carolina, a 3-year-old climbed into a hot, empty car, buckled himself into his car seat and died in the extreme heat. Each of his parents mistakenly thought the boy was being cared for by the other parent. In Atlanta, two young brothers, both under age three, died on a hot July day after wandering out of their backyard and into an unlocked car parked outside the family home. Temperatures that afternoon had reached about 90 degrees.

In all, data reported by the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety show at least 30 children died last year from heat stroke when they became trapped or were left in parked cars. This year the three known deaths that have already occurred were reported in the widely diverse areas of Phoenix, Hampton, Virginia, and Sussex County, New Jersey, where a child was left in a car seat for more than two hours. In the last case, the outside temperature was a seemingly moderate 63 degrees, which shows just how fragile young life can be stuck in a parked vehicle as the inside temperature climbs.

"These tragedies sharply illustrate that adults don't understand how severely and quickly heat affects children," said Heather Paul, Ph.D., executive director of the National SAFE KIDS Campaign. "All adults must understand that any unlocked car can become a deadly playground for small children."

Sadly, a large portion of the population is just not getting that message. According to a recent survey conducted by Bruskin Goldring Research for the National SAFE KIDS Campaign, 10 percent of parents said that it is acceptable for young children to be left in a car unattended. Even more frightening, among young parents between the ages of 18 and 24, some 20 percent feel that it is okay to leave a child alone in a vehicle. What these people don't realize is when the outside temperature is 93 degrees Fahrenheit, even with a window cracked, the temperature inside a car can reach 125 degrees Fahrenheit in just 20 minutes and approximately 140 degrees in 40 minutes. In these extreme conditions, children can die or suffer permanent disability quickly - in a matter of minutes.

"Extreme heat affects infants and small children disproportionately," said Martin Eichelberger, M.D., director of trauma surgery at Children's National Medical Center and president of the National SAFE KIDS Campaign. "Heat rapidly overwhelms the body's ability to regulate temperature. In a closed environment, the body can go into shock and circulation to vital organs will begin to fail."

The problem of children climbing into unlocked cars during the heat of the summer is even more insidious because at least half of all parents do not consider an unlocked parked car to be a potential hazard. The SAFE KIDS survey found that only 50 percent of parents always lock their cars at home, and one out of five parents rarely or never does so. Yet more than a third of the deaths reported last year occurred when children crawled into unlocked cars while playing and perished in the sweltering heat.

The organization notes that unlocked cars pose serious risks to children who are naturally curious and often lack fear. Once they crawl in, they don't have the developmental capability to get out. In several cases, a parent or caregiver intentionally left the child in a car, while in other cases the child was mistakenly forgotten.

In response to these tragic facts, the National SAFE KIDS Campaign is partnering with the American Meteorological Society to issue an urgent warning to parents and caregivers to take extra precautions with children in and around vehicles during the upcoming warm summer days.

The National SAFE KIDS Campaign says parents should be especially vigilant about their children's safety on days when temperatures are 80 degrees or higher. The following safety precautions will help you combat heat-related injuries in cars:

  • Keep cars locked at all times, even in the garage or driveway.
  • Teach children not to play in or around cars.
  • Never leave your child in an unattended car, even with the windows down.
  • Always make sure that all child passengers have left the car when you arrive at your destination.
  • If your child gets locked inside a car, get him out and dial 9-1-1 or your local emergency number immediately.
  • Make sure you check the temperature of the car seat surface and safety belt buckles before restraining your children in the car.
  • Use a light covering to shade the seat of your parked car.
  • Consider using windshield shades in front and back windows.

Car trunks can be especially hazardous. Kids get in but can't always get out. In very hot weather, heat stroke may result and could lead to permanent disability or even death in a matter of minutes. Because of this, follow these tips:

  • Keep the trunk of your car locked at all times, especially when parked in the driveway or near the home.
  • Keep the rear fold-down seats closed to help prevent kids from getting into the trunk from inside the car.
  • Put car keys out of children's reach and sight.
  • Be wary of child-resistant locks.
  • Teach older children how to activate door lock switches if they unintentionally become entrapped in a motor vehicle.
  • Contact your automobile dealership about getting your vehicle retrofitted with an inside trunk release mechanism.

More information on keeping your children safe is available by writing to the National SAFE KIDS Campaign, 1301 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20004 or by visiting the campaign's Web site.

Note: The survey quoted in the article was conducted by Bruskin Goldring Research. The sample size of this national survey was 700 families with children under 18. There is a sample reliability of + or - 3.5% at a 95% level of confidence.

-- Jeremy Hofstratten

Jeremy Hofstratten, the father of two children, frequently writes on safety-related issues.