Vehicular heatstroke. Hyperthermia. Hot car death. All names for a tragedy that plays out each summer. Already this summer, children in the United States have suffered fatal hyperthermia (heatstroke) due to being left in a vehicle. 25 children suffered fatal hyperthermia in vehicles in 2015; the year before 32 lives were lost. 2010 was the most fatal year on record: 49 children were killed. These deaths are heartbreaking and they are preventable. Think it could never happen to you? Think you could never, ever, forget about your child in a car? Think again.
Let’s clear up some misperceptions. Parents don’t forget they have children. The Pulitzer Prize winning article “Fatal Distraction,” said it best: accidental hyperthermia deaths happen because in that parent’s mind, the child isn’t in the car. The baby hasn’t been forgotten; the baby’s location has been forgotten. In that parent’s mind, the baby is already at day care, or safely at home. If you are capable of driving halfway to work on a Saturday when you were meaning to go to the grocery store, or of forgetting to pick up milk on your way home from work, you are capable of forgetting your child in the car.
It Could Happen to Anyone
We collected the following stories from normal, attentive parents who wanted to remain anonymous. These are the words of involved parents who show up for their kids’ soccer games and research what kind of baby food is best and make sure their baby’s crib isn’t recalled. They all have one thing in common: they forgot. They were wrapped up in remembering life’s myriad details; the things we all have to get done every day– buying groceries, figuring out what’s for dinner, remembering to schedule a dentist appointment. These parents were running on autopilot and they forgot. None of these stories end with a child losing their life, but had the circumstances been just a little different, they very well could have. Don’t think it couldn’t happen to you, because it could.
“It was a no-school day, so I dropped my son off with the neighbor for the day while I went to work. I hopped in the car and starting driving my usual route, except I didn’t go to work. Wrapped up in my daily routine, I found myself in the parking lot of my son’s preschool, horrified that he wasn’t in the back seat and confused why there weren’t any other cars there. It took a full minute for my brain to reconnect that, in fact, I had already dropped off my son with the babysitter: there was no school. It’s not hard to see how a little variance in an ingrained routine can cause one to just… forget.”
“It was hot, really hot, that summer. The kids were out of school and we had just gotten back from some errands. It was easily 95 degrees outside. The baby was screaming and needed a nap and my 3-year-old needed help out of her seat. I told my older kids to help her get out while I ran the baby inside to put her down. They had done this many times; it was nothing new to them. I go inside, get the baby down and stay with her to make sure she doesn’t roll off the bed. The kids are being quiet watching television downstairs. The older ones come up after a while and I ask if their sister is sleeping. They tell me they don’t know where she is and that she’s probably still in the van. My heart sank. I screamed and ran out to the van to find my van door open and my 3-year-old still harnessed in her seat, drenched in sweat, sobbing hysterically. To this day, I believe the only thing that saved her was being able to push the automatic door button with her foot. I grabbed her, rushed her inside, stripped her down and gave her a cool bath while telling the older kids to get her some water. She was going to be fine. We were one of the lucky ones. We were one whose mistake didn’t cost them a child.”
“It was a hot summer day and I decided to take my kids and meet a friend at our community pool. I had recently had a second child, with a large age gap in between my first and second children. I was getting my oldest out of the car as my friend pulled into the parking space near us. I saw her and waved. I got my oldest out of the car and she got her two kids out. When I saw that they were ready, I grabbed my purse and locked the car up. I started walking away and was confused as to why she was standing near my car. She said, “the baby?” and then I had remembered that I forgot to take my newborn out of the car, too. I don’t know how long it would have taken me to remember him if she wouldn’t have spoken up.”
“He was 6 weeks old, and I was sleep deprived. I drove around trying to get him to sleep – he had been crying for ages. He finally fell asleep. I stopped out front of a convenience store, left the car running (who knows why) and locked the door. I had to call CAA (AAA) in a mess of tears to get them to come asap to unlock it. They sent someone out and he was there in 5 minutes and got the doors open. I was his second call (child locked in car) that morning. The baby slept through the whole thing.”
“My friend was watching the girls, and we met at a coffee shop to switch them up. I had to uninstall the seats from her vehicle, so I put the baby in the truck and went to work. My toddler was getting antsy in the truck (it was really cold out) so my friend brought her inside for a donut. The toddler must have hit the auto lock when bouncing around! When I went back to the truck with a seat, I realized that my keys and phone were locked inside with my baby. The shop owner called the police, who said to break the window if the baby was in distress (she wasn’t). Thankfully I had thrown a blanket on her, but my toddler and I were freezing outside for the close to 30 minutes it took for the auto to come unlock my door. The baby woke up JUST before he arrived. I was SO thankful it was cold out. If it had been in the summer we undoubtedly would have had to break a window.”
“We were getting ready to go out- getting the animals fed and crated, getting ourselves and the boys ready. The younger one had slipped his shoes on and snuck out the door. We were frantically looking for him trying to figure out where he was. Did he close the laundry room door and was he in there with the cat hiding? No. He had managed to get the car door open (which we had no clue he had the strength to open!) and climbed inside. He managed to get his chest clip buckled and had been in the car screaming for 10 minutes “let’s go!”. Thank goodness it was during the cool months here. I always slacked on locking before I leave because my oldest knew better and the youngest couldn’t get in (or so i thought). No longer do I slack on that!”
What can we do to prevent these tragedies? The first step is realizing that all human brains, even parents’ brains, can make mistakes. The second step is to implement a simple reminder system.
Look Before you Lock
Before locking your vehicle, take a moment to look in your back seat and verify that the children are not in their car seats.
Lock Before you Leave
Once you’ve left the vehicle, lock the doors. In a few cases, children have climbed into an unlocked car and locked themselves in.
Talk to Yourself
Make it part of your routine for leaving the car to say out loud, “look before you lock, lock before you leave,” every time you get out of the car.
Newer Vehicles can Help!
Some newer vehicles offer some type of reminder to check the back seat before getting out. This warning displays when the car is turned off.
This vehicle also has some sensors in the back seat — if the car is locked and sensors detect movement inside, the vehicle sends an alert via an app. This second type of warning requires caregivers to download and connect the app so there’s an extra step involved, but it seems well worth the effort if your vehicle has this option!
- Keep your purse, your wallet, your briefcase, your winter coat or your cane on the floor of the backseat. Force yourself to walk to the rear of the vehicle every time to get something you need.
- Stow your cell phone in the back seat. You don’t need it while driving and it will force you to check the back seat.
- Put your left shoe on the floor of the back seat.
- Keep a stuffed animal in your child’s car seat. When they’re in the car, put the animal on your front passenger seat as a reminder of your backseat riders.
- Don’t leave sleeping children in the car and go inside – even in your garage. That car nap isn’t worth it when it’s far too easy to get wrapped up in other children, laundry, dinner, and phone calls and forget a child is asleep in a potentially dangerous situation.
- Don’t leave children in your vehicle while you run in for an errand – even a momentary one. It takes a remarkably short amount of time for a child to overheat in an enclosed vehicle, even with the windows cracked. It’s worth it to take the extra few minutes to take your kids inside with you.
- Set up a system with your daycare provider or significant other. Plan to call or have someone call you if your child isn’t dropped off by a certain time. Call your significant other at the same time each day to make sure the other either has the child, or the child is in the correct spot.
- Set an alarm on your phone.
- Keep vehicles locked in the driveway and teach children never to play in a vehicle. Hyperthermia deaths can happen when a child decides to play in an unattended vehicle and becomes trapped.
- If a child is ever missing, the first place to check is always any pool or body of water. The second place is the car, including the trunk.
These tips for reminders are not an all-inclusive list. If you have a system that works for you that isn’t on this list, we encourage you to continue to use it! Whatever you do that can remind you to look before you lock is an important step in child passenger safety; once you’ve looked, lock before you leave. In order for these tricks to be effective, all caregivers need to remember that it can and does happen to anyone. It can happen to you. Be mindful of your surroundings and be proactive in keeping your children safe.