Every summer, dozens of American children overheat and die of hyperthermia in parked cars. Hyperthermia, the opposite of the more familiar term “hypothermia,” is essentially the extreme overheating of the body. While most parents tend to believe that this nightmare could never happen to them, these tragedies still continue to occur, year in and year out.
According to a 2005 study published in Injury Prevention, 27% of these deaths involve unsupervised children gaining access to unlocked cars, while the remaining 73% (averaging 30-40 children per year) result from a child being left behind (generally inadvertently) in a car by an adult.
In a June 1, 2010, blog for the New York Times, writer Paul Stenquist reports that at least seven incidents of the latter variety have already occurred in 2010, even as summer temperatures have yet to hit much of the country. But searing summer temperatures are not necessary in order for the interior of a car to become lethally hot.
Indeed, a study published in the July 2005 edition of Pediatrics found that for a wide range of exterior temperatures, the average heat increase in a car parked in the sun for an hour was 40°F. Importantly, 80% of that temperature change (or roughly 32°F) occurred in just the first 30 minutes.
Even the car tested at the lowest ambient temperature, 72°F, reached 117°F after an hour, which becomes crucially important when you consider that temperatures in excess of 107°F can be deadly to young children. Additionally, children’s bodies heat up 3-5 times faster than those of adults. It bears mentioning that other researchers recorded much more rapid rises in temperature in similar experiments in which the thermometer was placed in direct sunlight inside the car rather than in the shade. In other words, a child seated in direct sunlight in a car will heat up much faster than one seated in the shade in that same car.
So how do kids get left behind in cars? Notably, the adults (often parents) who leave children in the car do not conform to any particular stereotype. They are scattered across the entire socioeconomic spectrum, and they work in a wide range of professions. For the most part, they are not characterized as being routinely neglectful; rather, they experience one forgetful moment that will haunt them forever. A stressful phone call on the way to work, a different parent taking a child to daycare—any small hiccup in the morning routine might be just enough to allow a normally attentive parent to forget about the child sitting quietly in the back seat.
While a number of groups are working toward ways of incorporating automatic reminders into cars (e.g. motion and weight sensors that would detect a child left behind), for the moment there is no substitute for the continued vigilance of parents and caregivers. Paul Stenquist assembled the following list of tips:
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