Safety alert: Child deaths from heat stroke in cars on the rise

Child deaths in vehicles from heat stroke.For kids across America the family car is perhaps the most potentially lethal item found at home -- more dangerous than any toy or children's product.

Deaths of children from hyperthermia (heat stroke) are soaring. So far this year two dozen children across the country have died after being left or getting stuck in hot cars, according to a study by a meteorologist who teaches at San Francisco State University.

Meteorologist Jan Null has been tracking these deaths since 2001 since being questioned about how hot cars can get after a California infant died. Really hot -- about 20 degrees hotter than the outside air temperature within an hour, he said, enough to quickly overheat a small child. On a hot sunny day, a car interior's temperature can surpass 180 degrees.

Since 1998, 469 deaths of kids in hot cars have been recorded by Null -- about 37 a year. In 2009, 33 deaths were recorded. The two dozen deaths already this year -- seven in one week in June -- is ahead of the pace of 2005, when 47 children died, the most since he started the study.

On his website, Null catalogs each case and includes the name of the child, their age, the temperature and the location. He maps each of the deaths to demonstrate how widespread they are.

"People don't realize the scope of it," Null told Consumer Ally.

The worst part, he said, is that "Every single one was preventable."

In half the cases recorded the parent claimed to have forgotten there was a child in the car. About 30% involve kids playing in cars, many of whom can get into an unlocked vehicle but can't get out because the child locks are set and prevent opening the door from the inside, Null said. About 20%, he said, involve parents who left the child in the car knowingly as they did such things as go to the bank or store.

In many cases, Null said, the parents realize the child is missing and look outside first rather than check the car.

In that first hour or so, the chances are good that if the child is outside they'll still be OK.

"If they're in the car, they'll be dead," Null said, pointing out that the car needs to be the first place every parent looks when searching for a missing small child.

It is unusual, he said, for a community to record more than one of these types of deaths since they tend to get highly publicized. So, for the most part, the deaths tend to be scattered across the country.

"Raising awareness is still the number one way we're going to prevent these cases," Null said.

The non-profit Safe Kids USA is one of the more prominent groups to take on the issue. And U.S. Rep. Mike Castle (R-Delaware) spoke out last week to help draw more awareness to the rising number of deaths recorded before the summer is half over.

Here are some tips from Null on how to prevent child deaths in cars due to heat stroke:
  • NEVER leave a child alone in a car
  • Call 911 if you see a child alone in a car
  • Make sure everyone leaves the car when it is being unloaded
  • Always lock your car and don't allow children access to remote door openers
  • If a child is missing, check the car (and the trunk) first
  • Teach children to not play inside of cars

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