Across the United States temperatures climb to new highs each summer. As we cruise through hot days it’s easy to disconnect with how the heat in cars can skyrocket once the air conditioning is off. It can happen heart-breakingly quickly.
When my son was an infant, I remember hot sticky afternoons and how exhausted I would often be, running errands and lifting my son in and out of the car. How harried and frustrated I felt as he would fall asleep before I was done and how tempting it was to let him sleep while I just ran into the store for a few minutes. I didn’t. It was too scary to imagine the possible scenarios – kidnapping would have been the least. We survived the car seat period and he’s now old enough to learn how to drive. Not so for too many. Overheated cars have become an accomplice in the death of babies world wide.
In San Diego a young mother was arrested for leaving her 4 month old baby strapped into the car seat while she went shopping. Mall surveillance footage established that the mother was inside for approximately 12 minutes. When she locked the car and strolled away, the temperature was a sunny 75 degrees.
A few minutes later a mall security worker saw the baby and alerted the police. They were able to force the back window down and remove the comatose child. While they tried to revive the baby the mother strolled out of the clothing store and grabbed her unconscious child. Within minutes she was arrested for reckless endangerment. The baby woke up later at the hospital.
Before taking the mother to jail the police tested the heat inside the car and discovered it had risen from 75 to 104 degrees. Hot enough to cause cell damage and internal organs to shut down, especially in infants whose bodies aren’t as efficient as adults at sweating and cooling.
Heat in cars kills babies around the world
In America more than 450 children have lost their lives to ‘vehicular hyperthermia’ since 1998 and it’s been happening around the world.
Japan has many playful Pachinko gambling parlors. The colorful, noisy machines gained popularity after WW2 and in recent years have gone high tech with LED screens and animation. Once seen as disreputable hang-outs, many Pachinko parlors now offer couples comfortable seating and smoke free areas. It’s a fun, harmless diversion except for the children who have been left alone in the car while their parents go inside to gamble.
In 2011 a baby died in the car while the mother played Pachinko for six hours. This and other deaths has led Japanese police to request car monitoring by parlor owners and other remedies, but there are no laws banning the abandonment.
In Australia, a 37 year old mother left her year old daughter locked in the car while she played the ‘pokies’. Luckily a witness heard the child crying and alerted the tavern owner. The child survived and the mother was banned from the tavern, publicly outed but only received probation for the incident.
What makes heat in cars so lethal?
San Francisco’s Department of Geosciences reports that: “The atmosphere and the windows of a car are relatively “transparent” to the sun’s shortwave radiation and are warmed little.” However they also state that this shortwave energy heats up the objects it strikes.
Ever been shocked by a sun-baked steering wheel? That wheel, a dark dashboard or seat can easily reach temperatures in the range of 180 to over 200 degrees F. All of those objects can turn a cars interior into an oven by convection and conduction using efficient long wave radiation to warm the air trapped inside a car.
In the U.S. only 19 states have laws making it illegal to leave young children alone in cars and legal consequences for doing so varies widely. Abandonment isn’t the only culprit as car seat laws have led to an increase in abandonment. In the three-year period of 1990-1992, before airbags became popular, there were only 11 known deaths of children from hyperthermia.
Between 2009-2011, when almost all young children were placed in back seats instead of front seats, there have been at least 118 known fatalities from hyperthermia -a ten-fold increase from the rate of the early 1990s.
There are many sad cases where parents or caregivers forgot that babies were in the back seat. More than half the children who died from had been ‘forgotten’.
With more care and attention to preventing this tragedy, I hope never to read of another child, who died alone, in an excruciating furnace – the family car.