May 24, 2012

Beat the Heat – Check the Backseat

By Senior Master Sgt. Philip J. Liberati
926th Group Safety Office

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — As the temperature begins to rise, the risk of death to children left in vehicles also begins to rise.

According to figures from the Department of Geosciences at San Francisco State University, an average of 38 children die each year in hot cars.

The numbers typically begin to climb in May, with an average of three deaths per month. They spike in July and August, when nine deaths occur, on average.

More than half of the deaths — 52 percent — occur when a child is mistakenly left in a vehicle, typically by a parent or caregiver who is rushed or stressed.

Frequently, the accidents occur when there’s a deviation from the normal routine. Dad is handling the drop-off instead of mom, or there’s been some other change in schedule.

About 30 percent of the deaths occur when a child is playing in an unattended vehicle and becomes trapped inside — or in the trunk, reports show. Another 17 percent of deaths occur when a child is intentionally left alone, for instance, when a parent went shopping.

Babies and children left inside face temperatures that quickly soar to lethal heights.

The SFSU study illustrated how rapidly the interior of a car heats up. It measured a blue sedan parked with an outside temperature between 72-96 degrees Fahrenheit (for comparison, Nellis’ summer temperatures can reach 117 degrees).

It took only 10 minutes for the inside temperature to jump 20 degrees. In an hour, it was nearly 50 degrees hotter – 110 to 140 degrees inside the car. “Cracking” the window had little to no effect.

Regardless of how or why a child is left behind, the effect is “swift and devastating,” said Dr. Leticia Ryan, researcher and clinician at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

“The child’s body heats up three to five times faster than an adult’s,” she said. “Their internal systems are not fully developed.”

Kids don’t sweat as efficiently as adults and their bodies absorb heat faster. It can take as little as 15 minutes in an overheated vehicle for a child to begin to suffer life-threatening brain or kidney injuries.

When body temperature reaches 104 degrees, internal organs begin to shut down.  At 107 degrees, children die.

Safety recommendations

  • Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle, even for a minute.
  • If you see a child unattended in a hot vehicle call 9-1-1.
  • Be sure that all occupants leave the vehicle when unloading. Don’t overlook sleeping babies.
  • Always lock your car and ensure children do not have access to keys or remote entry devices.
  • If a child is missing, always check the pool first, and then the car, including the trunk.
  • Teach your children that vehicles are never to be used as a play area.
  • Keep a stuffed animal in the car seat and when the child is put in the seat place the animal in the front with the driver. Alternatively, place your purse or briefcase in the back seat as a reminder that you have your child in the car.
  • Make “look before you leave” a routine whenever you get out of the car.
  • Have a plan that your childcare provider will call you if your child does not show up for school.

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