By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Recognizing the danger of death by leaving unattended children in hot vehicles intentionally or unintentionally, Hillsborough County commissioners again this year proclaimed September as Child Passenger Safety Awareness month.
At the board’s Sept. 2 meeting, commissioner Sandra Murman said the annual proclamation aims to remind people to never leave children alone in vehicles, and especially so on hot, sweltering days.
But even on mild or cloudy days, the danger is real, as temperatures inside vehicles can reach life-threatening levels, even with windows left ajar, according to the National Safety Council.
The nonprofit reports that 53.8 percent of deadly vehicular heatstroke cases happen when a caregiver forgets a child in a vehicle; 26.3 percent, when children gain access on their own; and 18.6 percent when someone intentionally leaves a child in a vehicle. It further notes that since 1998, more than 800 children have died from vehicular heatstroke, with 24 percent of the cases occurring in employer parking lots while the parent or caregiver was at work.
KidsandCars.org, in its advocacy for the Hot Cars Act, notes an even higher number, reporting in its sample letter to elected representatives that more than 940 children have died in hot cars since 1990, with the past two years the worst in history.
“The problem will continue until existing technology to detect and alert of a child or pet’s presence inside a parked vehicle is installed in all vehicles because no one thinks this could happen to them,” the letter reads, which further notes that more than 100 pets have died in hot cars over the past two years alone.
“We, as parents, caregivers and bystanders, play a role in helping to make sure another death doesn’t happen,” says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which reports that 52 children in 2019 — and 21 more this year — died of heatstroke because they were left or became trapped in a hot car. A record 53 child vehicular heatstroke deaths occurred in 2018.
The Hillsborough County proclamation notes the efforts of Safe Kids Greater Tampa, under its lead organization, St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital of Tampa, and its work to protect kids from preventable injuries, “the number one cause of death to children in the United States and a global epidemic around the world,” according to SafeKids.org.
Safe Kids Worldwide as a nonprofit network works with more than 400 coalitions nationwide and with partners in more than 30 countries to reduce traffic injuries, drowning, falls, burns, poisonings and more. Safe Kids marks September as Child Passenger Safety Month and Sept. 20-26 as Child Passenger Safety Week.
“Sometimes babies are so peaceful and quiet in the backseat that we can forget they are even there, and it can be tempting to leave a sleeping baby in the car so we don’t have to wake them up while we quickly run into the store,” Safe Kids notes. “But leaving a child alone in a car can lead to serious injury or death from heatstroke, even in cooler temperatures.”
Safe Kids reports that, on average, every 10 days a child dies from heatstroke in a vehicle. It warns that a car can heat up 19 degrees in just 10 minutes and that cracking a window does not help. Young children are especially at risk, as their bodies heat up three to five times faster than an adult’s.
Working for Safe Kids Greater Tampa is Michelle Sterling, who spoke at the Sept. 2 meeting, held via Zoom.
“Public education and awareness remains the most effective tool to help get this word out,” Sterling said. “It’s not income level; it’s not where you live or what you do for your job,” Sterling said. Vehicular heatstroke “can happen to anybody.”
Prevention involves a series of simple steps, Sterling said. “Make sure to check the back seat of your car and keep your doors locked when you’re not in your vehicle,” she said. “That’s when a lot of kids enter the cars. They walk outside into the garage and get in the vehicle, and they can’t get out.”
Sadly, a recent such accident occurred in Florida, only this time involving a mother and wife, who died in her husband’s police car with locked doors that could only be opened from the outside.
According to an Associated News report dated Aug. 25, Clara Paulino, 56, died after becoming trapped for several hours while temperatures outside hovered above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The SUV reportedly had a cage that separates the back seat from the front, which made reaching the horn impossible.
“I don’t think anybody could imagine anything like that ever happening,” a neighbor reportedly said.
For tips and resources addressing vehicular heatstroke prevention, visit: www.KidsandCars.org and www.SafeKids.org/tip/heatstroke-safety-tips. The National Safety Council, at www.NSC.org, offers tips and a free online training video, “Children in Hot Cars,” at https://training.nsc.org/hot-cars. Safe Kids Greater Tampa is at 4600 N. Habana Ave., Suite 26. Call: 813-615-0589, ext. 230. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.