Despite decades of campaigns pushing for increased awareness, injuries and deaths caused by heatstroke when kids are left in hot cars continue to happen. Dozens of children across North America die each summer while trapped in hot cars, where interior temperatures can jump more than 30 degrees Celsius in just half an hour on a sunny day.
And experts are in agreement on why these tragedies continue to take place unabated.
“Parents just can’t wrap their heads around the fact that this can happen to anyone, including them,” says Janette Fennell, founder of Kids and Cars, a non-profit organization that advocates for injury control and child safety. “It happens to the rich, the poor, all different races, stay-at-home moms, rocket scientists, veterinarians, teachers, you name it. Everyone.”
Lorrie Walker, a training manager and technical advisor for Safe Kids Worldwide, concurs. “Sadly, many folks think that because they so love their children it won’t happen to them,” she says. “They don’t see themselves as at risk for this sort of injury or fatality. They don’t always take the necessary steps to prevent these tragedies because, to them, it’s unimaginable.”
Kids can wind up locked in hot cars in a variety of ways:
- A busy and exhausted parent’s schedule changes, causing them to forget that it’s their turn to drop the kids off at daycare, resulting in sleeping babies and toddlers left in the backseat.
- Parents (or neighbours) might leave a door, trunk or hatch open, which gives access to kids to climb in, where they accidentally lock themselves inside.
- Some parents deliberately leave their child buckled up in a car while shopping or visiting friends, thinking they’ll be back before it gets too hot (but then they are unexpectedly delayed, or forget).
Part of the problem is that the job of educating parents never lets up. Millions of new moms and dads are created every year, and they all need to be taught the risks involved with and strategies used to avoid heatstroke in cars. “You can’t just issue this message once and forget about it,” says Walker. “Every day there are new parents. Every day there are new caregivers and new grandparents. It always needs to be at the forefront.”
To that end, Walker supports a short and simple hot car death prevention acronym that’s easy to remember: ACT.
The ‘A’ stands for Avoid, which instructs parents to avoid leaving their children alone in a car, even for a moment. You could become distracted, and even short distractions can have tragic consequences.
The ‘C’ is for Create, which encourages parents to create reminders to check the backseat before exiting their vehicle. Try getting into the habit of keeping your wallet, purse or phone on the floor behind your seat so that you need to look in the backseat before getting out.
And the ‘T’ is for Take action, which means that if you ever see a child locked in a car, call 911 immediately. Don’t hesitate or wait to see if someone returns. Notify the authorities so they can decide what needs to be done.
Another good idea is to get into the habit of calling your daycare on days when you aren’t responsible for dropping off your kids to ensure that they arrived safely. It takes just a minute, and quality daycares won’t mind the interruption. Some even have programs in place where they’ll call you if your child doesn’t arrive.
However, some child safety advocates think that education and parents working to change their habits doesn’t go far enough. There will always be gaps resulting from human error, and the best way to fill them is with technology.
For example, some car seats, such as SensorSafe-equipped models from Evenflo, include buckle sensors that remind parents there’s a child in the backseat when the car stops. And the popular navigation app Waze (available free for both iOS and Android devices) introduced a feature last year that pushes out a reminder message once you arrive at your destination to alert you that a child is in the car.
But Fennell thinks the real key rests in legislation to equip new cars with built-in safe guards. “The HOT CARS Act of 2017 introduced in the US calls for all vehicles to provide a reminder alert when a child is left in the backseat of a car,” she says. She points out that car makers already use weight detection sensors for air bags and seatbelts. Using similar technology to deliver reminders that kids are in the back seat could potentially avert many heatstroke catastrophes.
Until then, however, it’s up to parents to educate themselves about car heatstroke and create habits that lessen the chance of leaving children behind in the oven-like conditions that arise within cars in the summer.