The year 2016 is coming to a close and we’re no closer to solving the problem of hot car deaths. We know this because as the year comes to a close we find that the total number of U.S. heatstroke deaths of children left in cars in 2016 is actually higher than average. That number would be a very shocking 39 deaths, when the average is 37 deaths in one year.
Yes. A full 39 infant deaths have occurred in 2016 (as of this writing) due to these babies having been left behind in cars. That’s in spite of all the articles written to raise awareness of the subject. It’s also in spite of all the organizations and experts devoting their time to the problem of hot car deaths.
The phenomenon of hot car deaths came into its own in 1998. That is when we began to sit up and take note that babies were dying of heatstroke after being left behind in cars. It was happening often enough that the problem needed to be addressed. Since that time, 700 babies have died of heatstroke after being left behind in cars.
In 2013, there was a spike of 44 infant deaths from being left in a hot car which was followed by a slew of articles on the subject. That information campaign seemed to make a difference. The following year, 31 babies died in hot car deaths, and the year after that, “just” 24.
It looked like we were getting somewhere.
But now the number of mortalities has jumped again. This suggests that parents are still in denial about the roots of hot car deaths. They don’t believe that a parent can forget their baby. They don’t think it can happen to them.
As a result, they refuse to take precautions against forgetting their children. Such precautions run the gamut from leaving a cell phone in the backseat of the car, to free apps, such as Kars4Kids Safety. It’s actually predictable: parents will read this paragraph and think, “Why would I remember my cell phone but not my baby? I would never forget my baby and leave him/her behind in my car.”
They don’t get it. They don’t understand, or perhaps they don’t believe the cognitive process, as outlined by Prof. David Diamond, that is the root cause of forgetting a baby in the backseat:
“The quality of prior parental care seems to be irrelevant. The important factors that keep showing up involve a combination of stress, emotion, lack of sleep and change in routine, where the basal ganglia is trying to do what it’s supposed to do, and the conscious mind is too weakened to resist. What happens is that the memory circuits in a vulnerable hippocampus literally get overwritten, like with a computer program. Unless the memory circuit is rebooted—such as if the child cries, or, you know, if the wife mentions the child in the back—it can entirely disappear.
“Memory is a machine,” says Diamond, “and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you’re capable of forgetting your cell phone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child.”
Diamond is speaking of executive function. This is the brain on autopilot doing the myriad things we do in our day that we barely think about. Things like getting up, taking a shower, driving to work, doing errands, and so forth. Now throw in something extra, like dropping off the baby at daycare, the one day in the week you do it instead of your spouse, and add in some stress, poor weather conditions for driving, and sleep deprivation and you’ve got a recipe made in hell. A recipe for forgetting your baby because the working memory is overwritten by an automatic brain process, something we humans, cannot consciously fight. It happens without our knowledge, consent, or awareness.
As long as we don’t believe this and don’t take precautions to prevent this process, hot car deaths will continue to occur.
Some stark facts and figures:
Hot Car Death Statistics
- Total number of U.S. heatstroke deaths of children left in cars, 2016: 39
- Total number of U.S. heatstroke deaths of children left in cars, 2015: 24
- Total number of U.S. heatstroke deaths of children left in cars, 1998-present: 700
- Average number of U.S. child heatstroke fatalities per year since 1998: 37
Hot Car Death Circumstances
Examination of media reports on 700 hot car deaths in the 19-year period of 1998 through October 2016 suggest the following circumstances:
- 54% – child “forgotten” by caregiver (376 Children)
- 28% – child playing in unattended vehicle (198)
- 17% – child intentionally left in vehicle by adult (120)
- 1% – circumstances unknown (6)
Ages of Victims
Babies who died from vehicular heatstroke in the United States from 1998 to October 2016 range in age from 5 days to 14 years. Over half these deaths are for children under the age of 2 years.
- < 1-year old = 32% (225)
- 1-year old = 22% (154)
- 2-years old = 20% (136)
- 3-years old = 13% (92)
- 4-years old = 6% (42)
- 5-years old = 3% (23)
- 6-years old = 1% (9)
- 7-years old = < 1% (3)
- 8-years old = < 1% (3)
- 9-years old = < 1% (2)
- 10-years old = < 1% (3)
- 11-years old = < 1% (2)
- 12-years old = < 1% (1)
- 13-years old = < 1% (1)
- 14-years old = < 1% (3)
- Unknown = < 1% (1)
- 20 states now have Unattended Child Laws that specifically address the issue of leaving a child in a vehicle, unattended.
- The remaining 30 states have not yet created specific laws to address the problem of leaving a child in a vehicle, unattended.
- 14 states have proposed to adopt unattended child laws.
- 10 states now have “Good Samaritan Laws” that make use of specific language to protect anyone who sees a child in a car and subsequently attempts a rescue.
Hot Car Death Charges and Convictions
A 2005 Associated Press (AP) study looked at the frequency of prosecutions and length of sentences in infant hyperthermia deaths and found that:
- Charges were filed in 49% of hot car deaths with 81% of them resulting in convictions.
- In cases involving paid caregivers such as childcare workers and babysitters, 84% were charged with 96% resulting in convictions.
- Only 7% of all cases of hot car deaths involved drugs or alcohol.
Heatstroke occurs when body temperature rises above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, the body can no longer regulate its own temperature.
Symptoms of heatstroke:
- Hot dry skin (skin flushed red, not sweaty, hot to the touch)
- loss of consciousness
- rapid heartbeat
When the core body temperature reaches 107 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, the body’s cells will become damaged and the body’s internal organs will stop working. Once this happens, death comes quickly.
Children’s bodies are not as efficient as adults at regulating body temperature. A child’s body temperature rises at a rate that is 3-5 times faster than an adult’s.
Closed Cars Heat Up
From a 2002 heat study, the average elapsed time and resulting temperature rise inside closed cars:
- After 10 minutes ~ 19 deg F
- After 20 minutes ~ 29 deg F
- After 30 minutes ~ 34 deg F
- After 60 minutes ~ 43 deg F
- From 1 to 2 hours ~ 45-50 deg F
- From 2 to 4 hours ~ 50-55 deg F
- Two-thirds of the heating of a closed car occurs within the first 20 minutes
- “Cracking” the windows had little effect (lowered the heat rise by fewer than 3 degrees)
- The color of the closed car’s interior has a significant effect on how high the temperature rises
Don’t be in denial. Take simple steps to prevent a baby being left behind, even if you don’t believe it could happen to you, or to your baby! Put your wallet, cell phone, or purse in the backseat of your car. It’s an extra step that will make you perhaps feel silly, but keep your baby alive, when your brain is overwhelmed and goes on autopilot. You don’t have to believe it. You just have to do it.
So do it, and save a life.
(Source for cited statistics: Jan Null, CCM, Department of Meteorology and Climate Science, San Jose State University, http://noheatstroke.org)
Editor’s note: This post was originally published December 21, 2016, and has been completely revised and updated for accuracy and scope.
Jan Null says
I am the creator and author of all of the material on http://noheatstroke.org. First and foremost, all of the cases cited would not due to infants and children being forgotten in vehicles. Only 54% are forgotten. Secondly, while Forgotten Baby Syndrome is catchy, I have yet to find it documented as something unique in any peer-reviewed literature. It’s like saying Forgotten Car Key Syndrome is something unique when I’m stressed about going to an appointment! Yes, people do forget things and reminders are a great idea, but only for the just over half the cases where they are forgotten. Finally please cite materials, per my FAQ page, as “Source: Jan Null, CCM, Department of Meteorology and Climate Science, San Jose State University, http://noheatstroke.org“
Varda Epstein says
Thanks for your input, Jan. Your comment led to our long phone discussion and the result of that conversation will be posted on the blog tomorrow. Stay tuned!