Children, Heat Deaths and Your Car

Heat is the leading weather-related cause of death in the USA.

The sultry days of summer are nearly upon us, bringing with it trips to the beach, cross-country vacations and a slower paced way of living. That slower pace, however, can also bring with it a decreased awareness of the effects of a hot sun not only on our bodies, but inside of our cars.

Death by Heat

Beat the HeatHeat is the number one weather killer in the United States, taking more lives than hurricanes, tornadoes and floods each year notes the National Weather Service. Some of those deaths take place in parked cars where unattended children are left inside while their parents or caregivers are busy elsewhere. Children’s bodies can heat as much as five times faster than adults, putting them at greater risk to heat stroke according to Safe Kids USA, a global nonprofit organization whose mission is to prevent unintentional childhood injury.

Even on a sunny, mild day when temperatures are around 72 degrees Fahrenheit, an enclosed car can heat up by 20 degrees within minutes. A condition known as “hyperthermia” can quickly set in, where the body absorbs more heat than it can handle. Leaving a window slightly open does not significantly decrease the heating rate, a decision that can still take the life of your child or pet.

Vehicular Heat Test

A test jointed conducted by the General Motors Company and Golden Gate Weather Services tracked the effects of heat in an enclosed unoccupied compact car on a warm day. The outside conditions were relatively mild with an air temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Within just two minutes of the hour-long test, the temperature inside the cabin rose to 94.3 degrees, an already dangerous level for small children.

By 10 minutes the cabin temperature rose to 99 degrees Fahrenheit, increasing to 109 degrees after 20 minutes. After one hour, the interior temperature was 123 degrees, a deadly level for anyone young or old.

The National Weather Service notes that some objects in a car can heat up much faster than others, raising the overall cabin temperature accordingly. A dark dashboard can heat to 180 degrees Fahrenheit and even top 200 degrees, heating the cabin by conduction and convection accordingly. Other quickly heating objects can include the steering wheel and car seats, with safety seats and ” title=”seat belts”>seat belts quickly becoming hot to the touch.

Dozens of Deaths Annually

In 2011, 33 children died of hyperthermia in hot vehicles, down from 49 the previous year. Since records were first kept in 1998, 527 children have died from hyperthermia because they were left in a parked car according to the Department of Geosciences at San Francisco State University. Out of the 527 deaths, 494 cases were tracked, identifying the circumstances surrounding these deaths. Some 52 percent or 253 of the deaths were attributed to the child being “forgotten” by the caregiver. Another 30 percent or 150 children were playing in an unattended vehicle with 17 percent or 86 children intentionally left in a vehicle by an adult.

Raising awareness of the dangers of heat-related deaths in cars is the KidsAndCars.org group, a nonprofit advocacy organization that has successfully campaigned for automakers to include an internal trunk mechanism as standard equipment in cars manufactured for sale or lease in the United States after September 1, 2001. The group seeks to advance a “Look Before Your Lock” campaign, whereby drivers are urged to open the back door of the vehicle each time they reach a destination. That advice may seem commonsensical to most of us, but when you’re a sleep-deprived parent and battling in an early morning fog as you head off to work, it serves as a needed and possible life-saving reminder.

Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service.

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