As the temperature rises, we welcome back so many seasonal recurrences. Like hearing fireworks, smelling grilled burgers, and seeing kids riding their bikes. These annual summertime vibes are always refreshing! But the news of hot car deaths that return with the warm weather is never welcome. Yet, each year, we hear of more children dying from this preventable killer.
On average, 38 kids die each year from vehicular heatstroke after being locked in a hot car. Vehicles heat up very quickly on even a mildly hot day. The inside of a car can rise 20 degrees in just ten minutes! And a child’s body temperature rises five times faster than an adult’s. A body temperature of 107 degrees Fahrenheit can be fatal to a child, and in a hot car, it doesn’t take long to reach that critical point.
Now, before you stop reading because you believe this can’t happen to you…we promise you, it can. Though these deaths are preventable, pretending like we aren’t all at risk won’t help reduce the number of deaths.
A child could die in your car from heatstroke—and that does not make you a bad parent. It makes you human! So, it’s time to accept that hot car deaths are possible, and join us on our preparation and prevention journey. Here are our car safety tips:
How to Prevent Hot Car Deaths
Understand it’s a memory issue. Not a neglect issue.
We get it — your reaction to any news story about a child’s tragic hot car death is probably “What a horrible, neglectful caregiver. That could never happen to me.” But neglect really isn’t to blame here. Usually, they happen because of an interruption in habit memory and prospective memory. Habit memory is the sort of auto-pilot you get into when doing things you do every day. Prospective memory is new information you’re intentionally trying to remember.
When you’re using both habit memory (driving somewhere familiar) and prospective memory (remembering the child in your back seat, especially at a time when you’re usually alone), you can easily forget the prospective task. To put it simply, when our routine changes, we can easily fall back into the old way and forget the new responsibility. This is what allows the accident to occur.
Reflect on some changes in routine you might encounter. Maybe your spouse usually drops your child off at daycare, but you had to do it this time? Or, maybe you stopped and grabbed donuts for the morning meeting before drop-off instead of after? Maybe you had a lot of errands you ran on the way home, your hands were full when you walked in the door, and you laid down for just a few minutes to recover from the long day?
All these situations are very relatable. And each one can put our children at risk. But it’s not because of malice or criminal neglect. We simply forget. And our forgetfulness is amplified when we’re overtired or stressed. It’s scary to think about, right? But, we have a solution. That’s next on our list:
Make a habit out of checking the back seat.
A great way to prevent hot car deaths is to make checking the backseat a habit, whether your child is with you in the car or not. Adding this to your routine will prevent that dangerous memory failure that comes with changing your routine.
To develop this habit, you could put a stuffed animal in the car seat. Or, you could put an important item like a purse or briefcase in the back seat every day. This way, when you get to work, you always open that back door to get your item. We’ve even seen parents choose to place their left shoe in the footwell of the backseat. No matter how exhausted, overwhelmed, or discombobulated you may be from a shift in routine — we doubt you’ll make into the house or the office with just one shoe!
Soon you’ll check the back seat for kiddos every time without realizing. This means that on the occasions you do have your child in the back seat, you won’t have to rely on prospective memory. Checking the back seat will be a part of your regular routine!
Create check-ins with your spouse or family.
Whether your family member is dropping your kiddo off at daycare or a friend’s house, make sure to check in shortly after they are expected to arrive. Make sure everyone arrives safely right away. That way, if a spouse or family member did forget your child in their car seat, only a few minutes will have passed, and your child can be saved before the car gets too hot.
Set up these check-ins as standard practice. Not only should you have these with your family, but your child care providers too! Confirm with daycare that the desk will call you if your child is more than ten minutes late for drop off. These quick and easy reminders could save a life!
Be aware of changes in routine.
When you have a change of routine, be extra vigilant. Put a reminder in your phone, plop your work bag in the backseat, and ask your spouse or friend to check in on you. There is no shame in being prepared. The first step to prevention is identifying risky situations. A change in routine is the perfect example of a potentially dangerous scenario.
Always lock your car and hide the keys.
Not all hot car deaths occur because a child was left in the car. Sometimes, while children are playing or exploring, they get into cars. Then, because of the childlock or their age, they can’t get out. This situation is particularly concerning, because the parent never knew the child was in the car to begin with.
To make sure a child doesn’t get into your vehicle unexpectedly, make sure your car keys are up and out of the way. And, never leave your car unlocked. Even if you live in a friendly area or don’t have kids at your home every day, locking the door is still wise. Neighbor kids could just as easily fall victim to one of these scary accidents if they hide away in your unlocked vehicle.
Keep kids safe and keep your peace of mind by always locking the car doors. Keep those keys high and out of reach!
Train your children how to respond if trapped in a car.
Though keeping your car locked is the best option, you never know when your child might get into a situation where they are trapped inside a car. Teach them how to use the passenger door to get out or how to use their feet to press on the horn.
If your child is in a harnessed car seat, we recommend the UnbuckleMe. This is only appropriate for children old enough to understand when to safely stay buckled. But the UnbuckleMe allows children to free themselves from their harness straps and find safety.
Teach your children how to stay calm and get out of a car by honking the horn and getting out of the passenger or driver door. In the event they’re stuck while still strapped into their car seat, make sure you have an Unbuckleme device for kiddos old enough to use one!
If a child is lost, look in the car first.
We’ve discussed already how common it is for children to crawl into a car and get stuck. And, we’ve also reviewed how quickly a car heats up on a warm day. For both reasons, if your child is missing, first check the car.
We always say to check bodies of water and the car first. These two areas pose the biggest risk to your child! And, if they’re in one of these dangerous situations, there isn’t much time to find them before serious injury or death occurs. So, when a child is lost, think fast. Look in any nearby pools or other bodies of water, then check the car right away.
Childproof your home to prevent kids from getting out.
Another great way of confirming a child won’t crawl into a parked car is to make sure they can’t get out of the house without permission. Add child locks and alarms on doors and windows. You want all outdoor time to be supervised to help reduce the risk of an event!
Make sure everyone in the family is on the same page.
Before reading this article, did you feel safe from these horror stories? If so, your other family members might feel the same way! Meet with your family to discuss the concern of vehicular heatstroke and provide education on how it can occur. Particularly, how it can happen to well-meaning parents and caregivers!
Ensure they are willing to lock their doors, participate in check-ins, and develop good habits. If you struggle to talk about your car seat and vehicle safety wishes with your family and friends, check out this article, here.
Never feel like it can’t happen to you.
Finally, never feel like it can’t happen to you. No matter how nurturing and loving we are, we all get overwhelmed, tired, and absent-minded at times. (If you’re like us, multiple times a week!) You’re a parent – you have a lot on your plate!
It’s very possible your child could be left in your vehicle or find their own way into a parked car. So, focus on creating good habits and managing risk by locking your doors and training your kids on what to do if they get trapped in a car.
Interventions to Prevent Hot Car Deaths
Now that you know how to keep your family safe from hot car deaths, let’s talk about what to do if you find a child locked in a car. You never know when you might be strolling through a parking lot or neighborhood and discover this terrible situation. Here’s what to do:
First, call 911. Let them know your location and follow their instructions. If you’re not near a phone or are busy getting the child out, point at someone and tell them to call 911 and stay close. Don’t be afraid to take charge in the situation. But, make sure medical assistance is on the way before you do anything else!
Assess the child.
Before you proceed, quickly assess the state of the child. This will help you and the 911 dispatcher know what to do next. If the child has already lost consciousness and has red, chapped skin wet with sweat, they’re likely experiencing a dangerous heatstroke. If this is the situation, you’ll need to act faster than if the child is just scared but conscious.
Send someone to find the driver.
Send another passerby into the building or home to find the driver. If it’s a business, they can go to the desk and ask them to page the driver. Or, you can ask them if they know the driver. They may work at the facility! Either way, if the driver can get outside quickly, you can safely gain access to the car and free the child.
Call an emergency locksmith.
If an emergency locksmith hears that there is a child trapped in a car, they will drop everything to get to you. They usually arrive very quickly. Often, even before the police arrive! Emergency locksmiths aren’t available in every city, though, so check now. That way, you won’t waste time searching for one in the event of an emergency.
Block the sun.
If the child is conscious and isn’t showing signs of distress. Do everything you can to block the sun from getting in until help arrives. This will prevent the temperature of the car from rising to dangerous levels. You can use coats, blankets, towels—whatever you’ve got! Just try to keep that sun out.
Get the child out.
If the driver isn’t coming out in a timely fashion and the child is in distress, do whatever you can to get them out of the car. Good Samaritan laws protect you from being legally responsible for damages, so don’t be afraid to break a window or door if you have to. The priority is the child.
To break a window, find a sharp metal object and strike the window in the corner. Break a window away from the trapped child, and use that door to unlock the others and gain access to the car. Make sure you let the 911 dispatcher know you are breaking into the vehicle before you do it.
Cool them off.
The 911 dispatcher will guide you with what to do next. But spritzing a child with water after they’ve been freed will help them cool down. Stay with the child until help arrives. If the child is unconscious and not breathing, perform CPR with the guidance of the dispatcher. Don’t stop until help arrives and the professional medical staff can take over!
Reflect and don’t rush to judgment.
Remember that hot car incidents don’t typically occur because of neglect. Stay calm and think about how this could have happened to you. And more importantly, don’t pass judgment on the parent that could have experienced that simple lapse in memory due to a change of routine, exhaustion, or stress. We’re all parents and we all want the best for our children!
Loving, nurturing parents can forget their child in a vehicle, but with proper precautions and preparation, you can reduce your family’s risk of hot car deaths.
This is never a welcome topic, but it’s important to understand we’re all at risk. Think about your life and reflect on where your child could be in danger. Are the car doors always unlocked? Do you and your spouse frequently change drop-off routines? Are you experiencing exhaustion or stress? Identify these risk factors and use the tips above to protect your family this summer! And for more tips on all things car seat safety, head on over to the Seat in the Seat Blog.
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