In 2009, the Washington Post recounted the trial of a man who – on a hot July day – accidentally left his toddler son alone in a car, where the boy died:
“When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept.
“He was virtually catatonic, she remembered, his eyes shut tight, rocking back and forth, locked away in some unfathomable private torment. … What he said was that he didn’t want any sedation, that he didn’t deserve a respite from pain, that he wanted to feel it all, and then to die.”
It can’t be repeated too often: Young children, the elderly and the disabled are especially vulnerable to high temperatures, as are pets.
Every year, dozens of children die after being left in cars on sunny days. So do countless dogs and other animals. Enclosed in doors they can’t open, they are effectively trapped in furnaces.
Western Washington is now enduring a record-breaking heat wave, with no let-up in sight. Puget Sounders aren’t used to weather like this; the threat may not be understood here as well as it is in the Sun Belt. And neither our children nor our animals are acclimated to extreme temperatures.
The science of automobiles parked on hot days is grim.
Cars are full of windows, which means they trap heat easily through the greenhouse effect. It doesn’t take a particularly hot day to produce killing heat. When the outside temperature is in the 70s, a car’s inside temperature can rise to 115 degrees or more. Researchers have found that it happens fast, with most of the increase occurring in the first 15 to 30 minutes.
When the temperature is in the 90s, the car’s interior can exceed 150 degrees. Leaving the windows slightly open makes little difference. Cars even heat up in the shade. Hyperthermia and potentially fatal heat stroke can set in when body temperatures reach 104.
Children who die in hot cars frequently have devoted but forgetful parents. A change in routine – driving to the mall instead of to work – may result in a failure to drop an infant off at grandmother’s house.
A day-care worker may forget to check the last seat in the van. Sometimes there are misunderstandings. A dad may assume that mom has the baby. Sometimes children climb into cars and fall asleep behind the front seat.
This can happen to even the most doting parent or guardian.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers guidelines for preventing tragedy:
• Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle.
• Always check the interior of the car, front and back, before leaving it.
• Ask child care providers to call if a child doesn’t arrive as expected.
• Put something you won’t leave the car without – cell phone, purse or briefcase – in the back seat to ensure that you look there.
• Teach children not to play in vehicles.
We’d add another: Never walk by a small child (or a dog) in an unattended car on a sunny day. If necessary, call 911. Sometimes it takes a village to save a life.