Children in Hot Cars: No Single Solution to These Preventable Tragedies

July 30, 2014

Sadly, there has been a lot of recent news coverage on children and hot cars, many of whom have died from heat stroke. Although this is an issue that parents and caregivers need to be cognizant of year-round, in the summer months when temperatures rise and families’ schedules often change, it is of particular concern. The questions these fatalities and “near-misses” bring to mind are: What can we, as researchers and child safety advocates, do to help families prevent these tragedies? How can we best protect children from exposure to heat stroke?

Add-on Reminder Technologies

In 2012, CIRP@CHOP released a research study, funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which evaluated commercially available products designed to prevent children ages 0 to 24 months from being left behind in closed, parked vehicles, potentially leading to heat stroke. We found limitations with the devices tested, which were designed to detect the presence of a child in a child restraint. In addition to inconsistency in device operation, the devices also required considerable effort on the part of the caregiver in order to be effective (including purchase, proper installation, and action if notified that their child was in danger). These types of devices also do not protect children who are intentionally left in a vehicle or who are playing in a vehicle and accidentally become trapped (which represent approximately 45% of vehicular heat stroke-related fatalities).

Raising Awareness

Although there is merit to the concept of add-on reminder technologies, they cannot be the singular source of protection for children against heat stroke. We know that parental education and awareness is key. Organizations such as NHTSA and Safe Kids have launched heat stroke prevention campaigns designed to educate parents and caregivers on the dangers of leaving a child alone in a vehicle, even for a limited amount of time. A recent study in Injury Prevention also described the temperature change in a hot vehicle throughout the calendar year in Austin, Texas, finding that enclosed vehicle temperatures reached at least 90 degrees Fahrenheit in all months of the year. However, another challenge in combating pediatric heat stroke is the stigma associated with affected families. As this Contemporary Pediatrics article articulates, there is a notion that parents and caregivers who forget children in hot cars are “irresponsible,” when this is not always the case. Forgetting a child in a vehicle can, and does, happen to well-intentioned, responsible parents when there is a break in their routine or other circumstances. Unfortunately, if families don’t believe this is an issue and don’t understand just how quickly pediatric heat stroke can occur in a hot vehicle, a “dangerous disconnect” in knowledge and awareness can lead to tragedy.

Vehicle-based Solution

As a biomechanics researcher, I believe there is the potential for a vehicle-based solution to heat stroke. Technology that is built into the vehicle that can sense (and even protect) passengers may not be far away, as auto manufacturers are beginning to explore these options. Preventing pediatric heat stroke is a complex issue that requires a multi-faceted approach to prevention. While awareness and education continue to be paramount, engineers, researchers, and vehicle manufacturers can also play a vital role in limiting and one day eradicating these preventable child deaths.

Learn more about pediatric heat stroke in these recent news stories featuring my CIRP@CHOP colleagues Kristy Arbogast, PhD and Mark Zonfrillo, MD, MSCE:

Yahoo! Health- How to Solve the Problem of Kids Getting Left in Hot Cars
National Public Radio- Why Hot Cars Are So Deadly