In July, 2004, a father in Florida stopped at his office with his 2-year-old son in his SUV. The father went inside “for a moment” and got caught up in activities in the office. His son died of hyperthermia. The father pled guilty to aggravated manslaughter.
In September 2004, a 22-month-old boy climbed into his grandmother’s car when a 6-year-old left the door open. The boy’s mother left for work, thinking he was playing next door. The outside temperature was 86 degrees, and the child died of hyperthermia.
Incidents of heat-related death of young children in parked vehicles are not isolated events. They occur throughout the warm months each year in the United States. About three-quarters of these deaths are due to adults leaving children unattended, either intentionally or unintentionally. Now, for the first time, a peer-reviewed study has been published that documents the circumstances under which young children die in parked motor vehicles.
“Heat-related deaths to young children in parked cars: an analysis of 171 fatalities—U.S., 1995-2002” by Anara Guard and Susan Scavo Gallagher of EDC’s Health and Human Development Programs (HHD) was published in February 2005 in the journal Injury Prevention. The article analyzes this type of death in children ages five and younger. The data were gathered from a methodical search of online news accounts since there are no standard sources of public health or law enforcement data on this type of fatality.
The analysis showed that more than a quarter of the adults who left children in cars were aware they were leaving the children, while half were unaware or forgot. About 19% of the children were left by child care providers, drivers, or babysitters, most of whom were formal or licensed providers. More than half of the children left unattended were less than one year old.
“The true number of children dying from heat-related deaths in parked cars is undoubtedly higher than what we documented since we were very conservative in choosing the cases we included in our database,” says Anara Guard, an Associate Center Director with HHD. “All of these deaths could have been prevented by employing simple measures such as keeping vehicles locked when not in use and more vigilant supervision by the adults responsible for young children.”
Indeed, public awareness campaigns and other interventions can help prevent heat-related deaths of children in cars. The article presents several types of approaches, including:
- Educating parents and child care providers about the dangers of leaving children unattended in cars and leaving cars unlocked
- Developing more effective child care center absentee policies
- Developing new safety technology for cars and child safety seats
- Passing laws that hold adults responsible for leaving children unattended in cars
- Training police and other first responders to advise families to search the car first when a young child is missing
“Blaming adults as negligent or forgetful is not the only answer to this preventable problem,” says Susan Gallagher, Senior Scientist and Distinguished Scholar in HHD. “It is important that environmental and policy measures be put in place as a back-up. We hope that our research will motivate public health and other professionals to advocate for such changes.”
Originally published on March 1, 2005