Nine children have died in 2018 so far because of being left in a hot car, and most parts of the country have not yet seen their warmest months. Despite the heartbreaking numbers, National Safety Council analysis – summarized in a report found only 21 states and Guam have laws in place to address children being left unattended in vehicles. Of the states that have implemented an unattended child law, nine lack protections for any person who tries to save a child left in a hot vehicle, and just eight states consider felony charges for those who leave a child.
The Council also found that of the 408 deaths that have occurred since 2007, 68 resulted in no charges being filed. Seventy-one cases resulted in jail time and in 52 cases, the suspected adult received a plea deal or probation. In nearly 30 percent of the cases reviewed by NSC, the legal outcome is not known, underscoring the need for better attention, data collection, and codified and clear legislation around an issue that claims an average of 37 young lives each year.
The analysis has prompted the National Safety Council to outline components of model legislation for states to protect children who are intentionally left in hot vehicles. The Council also is calling on parents and caregivers to understand the risks associated with leaving children unattended in vehicles, even for very short time periods.
The report is released in conjunction with the summer travel season and National Safety Month, observed each June.
“Our children are our most vulnerable passengers and we cannot leave them alone in vehicles – not even for a minute,” said Amy Artuso, senior program manager of advocacy at the National Safety Council. “This report should serve as a wake-up call to look before we lock. We need better laws, education and enforcement if we are going to end these preventable deaths and ensure No One Gets Hurt.”
Children’s bodies heat up much faster than adults’. A child’s internal organs begin to shut down once his or her core body temperature reaches 104 degrees F. On an 86-degree day, it takes approximately 10 minutes for the temperatures inside of a vehicle to reach 105 degrees. Fifty-six percent of all pediatric vehicular heatstroke (PVH) deaths since 1998 have happened when the vehicle was at home, and 25 percent have happened while the parent’s or caregiver’s vehicle was parked at their workplace.
While parents and caregivers often are the first line of defense against these deaths, lawmakers play an important role. Specifically, the National Safety Council urges lawmakers to:
- Eliminate “safe” time periods from their laws, because there is no safe amount of time to leave a child unattended in a vehicle
- Expand laws to include any person providing supervision to any child knowingly left in a vehicle
- Define the age of the responsible or supervising individual
- Either define or increase the age of persons that should not be left unattended to at least 14
- Include protection for vulnerable people left unattended, such as those with incapacitating disabilities
- Protect anyone who acts in good faith to rescue a child from a hot car
- Expand laws to allow individuals to take action if a child is in physical danger or “poses a danger to others”
- Direct funds received from fines to support education programs for parents, caregivers and offenders
While too many children are left in vehicles intentionally, many pediatric vehicular heatstroke deaths occur when children are left behind accidentally, usually because a parent or caregiver falls out of his or her normal routine and forgets to take the child out of the vehicle. In the report, NSC also issues recommendations for parents and caregivers including leaving a purse or cell phone in the backseat so they are reminded to check the back before leaving the vehicle.