NEWTON, MA | April 19, 2005
About 75 percent of child deaths in parked cars are due to adults leaving children unattended, either intentionally or unintentionally, a new study has found. Researchers from the Massachusetts-based Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC) studied the circumstances under which young children die in parked motor vehicles, recently publishing their findings in the journal Injury Prevention.
Researchers analyzed 171 U.S. fatalities between 1995 and 2002, looking at this cause of death in children ages five and younger. Since there are no standard sources of public health or law enforcement data on this type of fatality, data were gathered from a methodical search of online news accounts. Their analysis showed that 27 percent were children who gained access to unlocked vehicles and 73 percent were children who were left by adults. More than a quarter of the adults were aware they were leaving children in the vehicles, while half were unaware or forgot. Forty-three percent of deaths to children who were left were associated with childcare: 32 children were left by family members who intended to take them to childcare but forgot and went to work instead; 22 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,” said study co-author Anara Guard, an associate center director with EDC’s Health and Human Development Programs. “More importantly,” Guard said, “all of these deaths could have been prevented.”
The study also found that changes in routine on the part of caregivers frequently contributed to insufficient supervision of children, as well as to incidents where children were left behind by adults. Lack of supervision often led to children climbing into unlocked vehicles to play.
“Blaming adults as negligent or forgetful is not the answer,” said study co-author Susan Scavo Gallagher, senior scientist and distinguished scholar in HHD. “Measures must be put in place, such as new laws and adding design features to vehicles. We hope that our research will motivate public health and other professionals to advocate for such changes,” Gallagher said.
The EDC study presents several recommendations, 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; 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; and developing new safety technology for cars and child safety seats by building in warnings and other design features.