As you head out for summer activities, you might want to double check your car's backseat. Parked cars can quickly become ovens in the summer heat, posing a major health threat to children who are forgotten or play in unattended vehicles. Pets also are vulnerable as drivers overestimate their own ability to multitask.
More than 500 children have died in hot cars since 2008. Among the grim statistics is 3-year-old Hally Rozin of Tampa, who died of hyperthermia Sept. 12 after being forgotten and left behind in a hot car while relatives went to Sunday school and services inside a church.
Taking a few common-sense precautions can make the difference between life and death, according to child health and memory experts. "What people don't understand is this is not a failure of love," said Janette Fennell, founder of KidsAndCars.org, a nonprofit child-safety group in Leawood, Kan. "This is a failure of our memories."
About 35 to 40 children die every year because they were accidentally left behind by otherwise good parents whose memories failed them, said David Diamond, a neuroscience professor in the psychology department at the University of South Florida in Tampa. The problem is particularly acute in Texas and Florida.
Diamond has studied more than 50 such cases and in all of them there was a change in routine or a "perfect storm" combining stress and sleep deprivation. "I've never seen a case where a parent simply forgets and there's nothing out of the ordinary going on," he said.
The brain under stress often defaults to a memory system that lets people perform habits — like going to work without stopping at day care — without thinking about them, Diamond said.
Children are more vulnerable to heatstroke than adults because their bodies can't yet regulate temperature as well. Heatstroke, also known as hyperthermia, is different from having a fever, says Sue Hubbard, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and a pediatrician in Dallas.
In the summer, caregivers should take children out of the car no matter how quick the errand, she said.
Hubbard advises parents who find their child is missing to check the pool first if they have one, then the car. Don't be afraid to dial 911. A child who's suffering from heatstroke needs emergency medical attention.
New automobile features
KidsAndCars.org wants technological solutions such as having cars be equipped with seat-belt reminders for all seating positions. Weight-sensing devices in the backseat then could do double duty to alert parents when a child is still strapped in, Fennell said.
In June, two children died in Indiana after getting into the trunk of a 2000 Chevrolet Malibu in an incident similar to one that happened in 2009, she said. KidsAndCars.org renewed pressure on General Motors to recall its 2000 and 2001 vehicles with trunks and retrofit them with an internal glow-in-the dark trunk release, a federally mandated standard for all cars sold or leased in the United States since 2002.
"They said they were being the leader and they did nothing," Fennell said of GM's early promises after 11 children died of trunk entrapment in its vehicles in the summer of 1998. KidsAndCars.org offers a trunk-release kit for $9.99 on its website.
GM has no plans to recall and retrofit its older-model cars with the releases but does educational outreach through the organization Safe Kids Worldwide, Washington, D.C., spokeswoman Carolyn Markey said. "We think awareness is an important component in this issue," Markey said. "It's an avoidable tragedy and we're trying hard to help parents."