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Safety groups warn: Kids die in hot cars

That simple, logical message doesn't seem to be getting through, especially to younger parents.

It seems like common sense: Don't leave your child in a car during sweltering summer weather.

But some parents particularly younger ones are unaware how deadly a hot car can be. And about half of the more than 20 children who died in hot cars this summer were not left there by parents. The kids simply got inside to play and were overcome by the heat.

At a news conference Thursday, safety groups urged parents to lock their cars at home so curious children won't be able to get in.

"We're not talking about willful neglect here," said Phil Haseltine, president of the American Coalition for Traffic Safety. "We're talking about parents and caregivers who don't realize the danger."

The death toll of children locked in cars this summer has already exceeded last year's total of 18 _ and there are still 41 days of summer remaining, Haseltine said.

"What makes these deaths so tragic is that they are 100 percent preventable," he said.

This summer's deaths include:

A 2-year-old boy in Fayette County, Wash., who hid in a family car for a game of a hide-and-seek.

A 2-year-old boy in Omaha, Neb., whose 5-year-old brother helped him get into a car and then left him behind.

A 2-year-old girl in Apopka who wandered away from her family's mobile home and then climbed into a wrecked car.

A Sarasota toddler who died last month after his grandparents left him in a hot car while they went to church.

The safety groups said their fatality numbers understate the problem because they are based on news reports. The federal government does not keep track of the incidents. In fact, these groups had tallied only 19 deaths this summer because they were not aware of the Sarasota case and a case in Lexington, Ky., in which an 11-month-old boy died after his babysitter left him in a car. There could be others.

There also have been countless cases where children have been rescued before they died. In St. Petersburg last week, a 22-year-old mother was charged with felony child neglect for leaving her 11-month-old daughter in a car while the mother went into the Judicial Building on First Avenue N. The girl's temperature reached 103 degrees, but she was not seriously injured.

In another St. Petersburg case last week, a father was charged with felony child abuse after leav-ing his 5-month-old son in a hot car while he went into a bar for a drink.

The incident involving the 22-year-old St. Petersburg mother is typical, officials said, because young parents are more likely to be unaware of the dangers of hot cars. A survey conducted last week for the National Safe Kids Campaign found that 21 percent of parents ages 18-24 thought it was okay to leave children unattended in a car, which is twice as high as the rate for older parents.

The survey also showed that 50 percent of parents do not always lock their cars at home. The safety groups said it's important to lock cars so kids won't be able to get inside to play.

To emphasize their message, the groups held their news conference in a steamy parking lot on a hot day. Behind the podium were two cars with thermometers on the dashboards that said the temperature inside exceeded 120 degrees.

"We don't want to see another heat-related death this summer, said Heather Paul, the executive director of the Safe Kids Campaign.

The safety groups urged people to call police any time they see a child left alone in a car.

Paul said the Safe Kids Campaign does not necessarily want parents charged with a crime, but they want to alert all parents that "a car is not a playground or a babysitter."

_ Information from the Associated Press, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Lexington Herald-Leader was used in this report