With the hottest months yet to come, 12 infants and toddlers already have died in unattended cars this year in the U.S., prompting safety groups to warn parents against leaving children in vehicles for even a few minutes.
Cars heat up quickly, reaching deadly temperatures in a mere 10 minutes even when the outside level is in the low 80s and a window is slightly open, federal highway officials say.
The victims typically are left alone in their car seats by parents or other caregivers who are unaware of the risk or who simply forget about the youngsters, says Jan Null, a meteorologist and lecturer at San Jose State who has tracked such heat-related fatalities for more than a decade.
He puts the average death toll at 37 a year. A 2015 federal report says the toll began rising in the mid-1990s, possibly an unintended consequence of the campaign to put young children in rear seats to avoid deadly injuries from front-seat air bags that deploy in crashes.
The 12 deaths tallied this year, based on a survey of news reports from across the country, are up from five during the same 5½ months last year.
In many instances, authorities file criminal charges. Joshua Blunt 25, of Grenada, Miss., faces second-degree murder charges after leaving his eight-month-old daughter, Shania Caradine, in her car seat on an 88-degree day last month while he went to work.
The latest fatality, last week in Des Moines, Iowa, led to the arrest of Lance Williams Sr., 35, on child endangerment charges. He allegedly left his six-month-old son unattended in a sweltering car outside a barber shop.
Separately, authorities are investigating the June 6 death of 4-month-old Michael Fanfarillo, the son of a Rome, N.Y., police officer, Mark Fanfarillo, 35. The infant was left unattended in a car parked in the family’s driveway.
Other children have died after locking themselves in hot cars while playing.
Janette Fennell, founder and president of the advocacy group KidsAndCars.org, has campaigned to call attention to heat-related fatalities. “No one is immune,” she said. “The worst thing any parent or caregiver can do is think that this could never happen to them or that they are not capable of unknowingly leaving their child behind.”
As National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head Mark Rosekind said at a press conference last summer, “The message is simple: Never leave a child alone in a vehicle and always check the back seat before walking away. As a bystander, if you see a kid alone in a hot car, take action.”
NHTSA suggests, among other things, putting a needed phone, purse or briefcase in the back seat to make sure drivers check back there before leaving their vehicles. Fennell’s group offers, for a donation, a rescue device small enough to fit on a keychain that can be used to quickly crack open car windows and cut seat belts in an emergency.
In recent years, major car and child seat manufacturers, as well as dozens of do-it-yourself inventors, have sought to popularize other devices to prevent tragedies. Some methods are low-tech, such as the “Safety BIB,” a warning tag placed on the rear-view mirror. Higher technology products on the market include an Evenflo infant car seat that sounds a beep if a baby remains strapped in after the engine is turned off.
General Motor, meanwhile, has announced that its 2017 Acadia SUV will sound an alert when it is turned off if a back-seat door was opened before the vehicle was started. The device does not specifically detect the presence of a child, but is meant to prod motorists to check in the back seat for whatever they had placed there — be it a baby, pet or briefcase.
Some safety activists, including former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook, are urging the federal government to require technology to alert drivers when children are left inside vehicles. Claybrook equates such a step to previous federal mandates for safer power window switches, trunk releases that enable someone locked inside to get out and, effective in 2018, rear-view cameras.
This story was reported by FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a nonprofit news organization based in Pasadena, California, that focuses on public health, safety and environmental issues.