Researchers have found that since 2013, there have been six known cases of child deaths in parked hot cars in Canada – an average of one death per year. These occurred most commonly between May and September. The researchers from Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and the University of Toronto are the first to report on this data and to establish a guideline of strategies to help parents and caregivers avoid a possible tragedy.
Bystanders have a role to play to prevent such deaths. People who spot children alone in hot cars should call 911 immediately even if the child seems alright, Dr. Joelene Huber, principal investigator of the study and Developmental Paediatrician at SickKids, told Canadian Press.
Last month, a passerby noticed a child in a vehicle parked out in the sun in a parking lot in Squamish. The passerby called the police which, with the help of firefighters, removed the two-year-old from the car.
Numerous hypotheses exist for why a potential tragedy becomes a reality. In popular culture, the term “Forgotten Baby Syndrome” is often used to explain why children get left behind in cars. In Canada, current laws that require all children aged 12 and under to sit in the backseat could also reduce the driver’s visibility or awareness of a quiet or sleeping child sitting in the back. Other hypotheses point to a fast-paced, modern society that could be responsible for parents and caregivers going into “autopilot mode”, and to experience lapses in memory and attention induced by stress.
The researchers developed guidelines and strategies to help parents and caregivers keep their children safe. These include:
Make it a habit
Always check the back seat before locking your car, even if a child is not with you.
Engage with your child during the drive. Sing or talk to them – even when a baby is asleep or not yet talking.
Put something you will need when you leave the vehicle in the backseat (i.e. phone, purse, wallet or briefcase).
Place a stuffed animal in the car seat when a child is not sitting in it. Move the toy to the front seat whenever you place a child in the car seat; it will serve as a reminder that a child is in the back seat.
Ensure your child cannot access parked vehicles
Keep vehicles locked when parked (i.e. in the garage, driveway or on the street) to ensure a child cannot get in and become entrapped.
Keep vehicle keys out of the reach of children.
“On a sunny day, the interior temperature of a vehicle can rise to dangerous levels within a short period of time. For example, an outside temperature of 22.2°C can result in an interior temperature above 40°C in just an hour,” says Huber, who is also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Toronto. “These temperatures are extremely dangerous and can lead to hyperthermia – a condition where the body temperature is elevated beyond normal. Young children are particularly susceptible to this and in developing a heatstroke as their bodies heat up quicker.”
Among the six cases of vehicular hyperthermia deaths since 2013, three were attributed to children left unintentionally in vehicles; one occurred after a child climbed into an unlocked vehicle; and two cases were undetermined.
In the U.S., an average of 37 children die of hyperthermia inside parked vehicles annually. The majority of cases are due to a caregiver forgetting them (~55%), while ~13% are due to intentionally leaving children unattended and ~28% occur when children climb into unlocked vehicles. The cause of four per cent is unknown.