Originally published and posted on June 1, 2014.
As children in the United States—especially vulnerable infants and toddlers—continue to die from heat stroke inside cars and other vehicles, researchers are making an astonishing discovery about why these preventable tragedies occur. Those responsible for killing their young aren’t monsters. They’re generally not even irresponsible. Rather, these are loving, well-meaning parents or caregivers who unknowingly leave children inside cars.1
In 2013, one of the worst years on record, 44 children died from heat stroke after being trapped in vehicles for hours.2 More than 600 children have suffered heat stroke and died in cars since 1998, according to Safe Kids Worldwide.
It’s easy to pass judgment on those who seem reckless enough to leave often-tiny babies to die helplessly in a car, but experts say it can happen to anyone. Most often it’s not due to recklessness, but simple forgetfulness.
Yes, parents and caregivers forget children are in their cars.
David Diamond, PhD, serves as an expert witness on many cases in which adults have left children in cars and children have suffered great harm or died as a result. Diamond, a professor of psychology, molecular pharmacology, and physiology at the University of South Florida, Tampa, has also researched the topic and interviewed dozens of parents who have experienced the tragedy firsthand.
“The first thing to emphasize to doctors is this happens to all kinds of people. This does not seem to target irresponsible people. It targets people who, in fact, are aware of this phenomenon. There are quite a few parents who have learned of other parents leaving kids in cars, and they judge them very harshly. Those are the very same parents who then forget their kids and their kids die,” Diamond says. “So, no one is immune from making this memory error. I tell people, if you’re human and have ever forgotten anything (if you satisfy those 2 criteria), then you can forget a child in a car.”
While parents and caregivers are the first line of defense against these needless tragedies, everyone in the community has a role to play in preventing them, according to a statement by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Pediatricians can be the key contact for educating caregivers and raising their awareness of the risks.
“A large part of what we as pediatricians do is discuss anticipatory guidance to help make parents aware of various safety issues that families face daily. Although we have so little time to cover so many important topics, we really owe it to our families to touch on automobile safety because so many children are injured or killed in vehicles annually,” says Greg Gulbransen, MD, a pediatrician in Oyster Bay, New York, and a board member of KidsAndCars.org. “Automobiles pose many different dangers of which heat injury, backovers, window entrapments, car seats, and seat belts are just a few of the issues that annually injure and kill many children.”
1. Child vehicular heat stroke summary. KidsAndCars.org web site. http://www.kidsandcars.org/userfiles/dangers/heat-stroke-fact-sheet.pdf. Published August 15, 2012. Accessed May 22, 2014.
2. New study: 14% of parents say they have left a child alone inside parked vehicle despite the risks of heatstroke [press release]. Washington, DC: Safe Kids Worldwide; April 29, 2014. http://www.safekids.org/press-release/new-study-14-parents-say-they-have-left-child-alone-inside-parked-vehicle-despite. Accessed May 22, 2014.
3. National statistics. KidsAndCars.org web site. http://www.KidsAndCars.org/statistics.html. Accessed May 22, 2014.
4. 14% of parents have left a child alone inside parked vehicle [news release]. Health, medical, and science updates. Stoneheartnewsletters web site. http://www.stonehearthnewsletters.com/14-of-parents-say-they-have-left-a-child-alone-inside-parked-vehicle/updates/. Published April 30. 2014. Accessed May 22, 2014.
5. Null J. Heatstroke deaths of children in vehicles. Department of Earth and Climate Sciences. San Francisco State University, web site. http://ggweather.com/heat/. Updated May 20, 2014. Accessed May 22, 2014.
6. McLaren C, Null J, Quinn J. Heat stress from enclosed vehicles: moderate ambient temperatures cause significant temperature rise in enclosed vehicles. Pediatrics. 2005;116(1):e109-e112.
7. Heatstroke. Parents and caregivers: Leaving kids alone in hot cars—know the risks and consequences. Safercar.gov web site. http://www.safercar.gov/parents/heatstroke.htm. Accessed May 22, 2014.
8. Booth JN III, Davis GG, Waterbor J, McGwin G Jr. Hyperthermia deaths among children in parked vehicles: an analysis of 231 fatalities in the United States, 1999–2007. Forensic Sci Med Pathol. 2010:6:99-105. Available at: http://www.KidsAndCars.org/userfiles/dangers/heat-stroke/studies/2010-06-hyperthermia-deaths-among-children.pdf. Published March 4, 2010. Accessed May 22, 2014.
9. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA urges parents and caregivers to think “Where’s Baby: Look Before You Lock.” http://www.nhtsa.gov/About+NHTSA/Press+Releases/2014/NHTSA+urges+parents+and+caregivers+to+think+Where's+Baby,+Look+Before+You+Lock. Published May 6, 2014. Accessed May 22, 2014.