OKEECHOBEE — There are several reasons people cite for leaving children unattended in vehicles, and most of them do not involve intentional cruelty. However, intentional or not, in 2018, 53 children died after being left inside hot cars in the United States.
Many parents feel it is safe to run into a store for just a minute while the child is sleeping in the car seat. They may not think it is very hot and possibly leave the windows cracked open, believing the child will be fine. In fact, a child left in a hot car can die from heatstroke very quickly. According to the website healthychildren.org, a child’s body heats up three to five times faster than an adult’s body does. When left in a hot car, a child’s major organs begin to shut down when his temperature reaches 104 degrees, and he can die when it reaches 107 degrees. In just 10 minutes, the interior of a car can heat up 10 degrees, and in temperatures as low as 57 degrees, a child can have a heatstroke inside a vehicle.
Some children are left in vehicles by accident. One parent may normally take the child to day care, and then one day the other parent takes him, but because this person does not normally take the child, he or she forgets the child is in the car and leaves the sleeping child in the car seat and goes to work as usual. Any disruption in routine can lead to this outcome — driving a different car, using a different car seat, talking on the phone, taking a different route to work — anything out of the ordinary can be enough of a distraction to allow a parent to forget a child is in the car.
The National Safety Council advises taking some measures to help ensure this never happens to you. “Stick to a routine and avoid distractions to reduce the risk of forgetting a child. Place a purse, briefcase or even a left shoe in the back seat to force you to take one last look before walking away.” If someone other than the usual driver is driving your child, call to be sure your child arrived safely. Ask your caregiver to call you if your child is more than 10 minutes late and to keep calling until you answer.
Children sometimes gain access to unlocked vehicles in their own or someone else’s yard. You can decrease this risk by keeping car doors locked so children cannot gain access and teaching them that cars are not play areas. Always make sure your car keys are inaccessible to your children.
Rarely, children are left in vehicles on purpose for malicious motives.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, protecting children is everyone’s business, and if you see a child alone in a car and are concerned, you should call 911. If the child is unresponsive or seems to be in pain, get the child out of the car and spray him or her with cool water, but do not use an ice bath. If the child is responsive, stay with the child until help arrives, and have someone search for the driver or parent.
There is no federal law limiting the length of time children can be left in vehicles, but the State of Florida has enacted a law that children under the age of 6 cannot be left alone in a car for more than 15 minutes if the car is turned off and, if the vehicle is running, they cannot be left alone at all. Despite this law, the American Academy of Pediatrics reminds parents it is never safe to leave children unattended in a hot car for any amount of time.