Sun, high temperatures turn vehicles into child death traps

In the short time it takes to pick up a few groceries for tonight’s dinner, life can turn tragically wrong. Attention is diverted; a few minutes become 10 or 15 ... The threat to young children grows exponentially with rising temperatures in sun-baked cars.

Idaho and much of the northern U.S. are sweltering in severe summer heat, increasing the risk of hyperthermia for children left unattended in vehicles. Over the past 15 years, an average of 38 children died from stroke or other heat-related complications after being left inside cars.

Each passing minute adds to the tragic potential.

The Weather Channel measured and documented the temperature inside a vehicle left under a constant 90 degrees. Within 10 minutes the interior reached 109 degrees. It climbed to 119 after 20 minutes, 124 after 30 minutes, 133 in an hour and 138 in 90 minutes – without increasing the ambient temperature outside.

Ten children already have perished this year because of vehicle-related hyperthermia (severely elevated body temperatures – the opposite of hypothermia that results from extreme cold). Last year, 33 child deaths were recorded, and since 1998, 537 children have perished.

"As the summer heat continues in Idaho, it is more important than ever to take care of our children and keep them safe," says Lisa Losness of Idaho's Office of Highway Safety. "We are responsible for their safety as passengers, whether the car is moving or not. It is never appropriate to leave children unattended in a vehicle. Their little bodies heat up and can become dehydrated much quicker than ours. Please protect them from the high temperatures inside vehicles."

A study by the Department of Geosciences at San Francisco State University reveals that many deaths inside vehicles occur under relatively mild conditions of around 70 degrees. Even with those lower ambient temperatures, cars can quickly become death ovens.

“The atmosphere and the windows of a car are relatively ‘transparent’ to the sun’s shortwave radiation and are warmed little. However, this shortwave energy does heat objects that it strikes. For example, a dark dashboard or seat can easily reach temperatures in the range of 180 to over 200 degrees F,” the SFSU report indicates.

Opening car windows slightly to create ventilation has only limited effects, according to the university study. The color of a vehicle’s interior is more directly related to the inside temperature and associated health risks.

SFSU offers the following safety recommendations:

  • Never leave a child (or a pet) unattended in a vehicle, not 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 the car (including the trunk) second.
  • Teach your children that vehicles are never to be used as a play area.
  • When placing a child in a back seat, put a stuffed animal in the front passenger seat as a reminder, or
  • 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.

Remember, pets left in a locked vehicle have the same risk of becoming overheated and dying.

Published 7-13-2012