A 5-year-old died after he was forgotten in a car for hours. Here's why an expert recommends using a 'visual reminder' like a stuffed animal to prevent similar tragedies.

·4 min read
An empty car seat in a car.
An empty car seat in a car.Catherine McQueen/Getty Images
  • A 5-year-old boy in Texas died after he was left in a car as temperatures reached 101 degrees.

  • An average of 38 US children die of pediatric vehicular heatstroke each year. 2022 has seen five such deaths.

  • An expert said there is never any safe temperature or situation to leave a child unattended in a car.

A 5-year-old boy in Texas who died after he was left in a car could be one of the dozens of children to die in a similar manner in a year.

"There's a real mindset, especially with new parents, of 'Well, you know, I would never leave my child in the car.' Well, it happens," San Jose State University's Jan Null, one of the nation's leading investigators of children's heatstroke deaths in cars, told Insider. "It happens to every socio-economic demographic there is. Every sort of job title, from social workers, principals, doctors, nurses, lawyers, to the unemployed and the underserved, you know, so it runs the whole gamut. So it can happen to anybody."

Authorities in Houston said the child's mother, who was rushing to prepare for a birthday party, accidentally left the boy in the car for two to three hours, KTRK reported. The temperature at the time reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit, according to data by the nearby Houston Intercontinental Airport.

While summer heat waves are causing blazing temperatures, Null said there is no safe way to leave a child in a vehicle, regardless of the circumstance or temperature.

"Never leave a child unattended in a car," Null said. "Not even for a minute."

Since 1998, some 912 children have died in the US from pediatric vehicular heatstroke, according to Null's data. On average, 38 children die of PVH each year.

Thus far in 2022, five children – whose ages ranged from 3 months old to five years old – have died due to pediatric vehicular heatstroke, according to Null's data. Two of the deaths were in Texas, while others were in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Georgia.

"It's primarily the southern states. They have longer hot seasons," Null said. "You have higher sun angles, your warmer climates."

However, all but three states in the US – Alaska, New Hampshire, and Vermont – have seen a pediatric vehicular heatstroke death, Null said. While the majority of deaths occurred when temperatures climbed over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, several deaths were reported when temperatures hadn't even reached 70 degrees.

According to a demo by Null, a car sitting outdoors in 70-degree heat can reach an indoor temperature of 96 degrees after just 15 minutes. After 60 minutes, the indoor temperature can reach 113 degrees.

Children 'forgotten' in cars make up half of pediatric vehicular heatstroke cases

In about 52% of cases of PVH deaths, the child was forgotten in the car, according to Null's data. To prevent that, Null said to utilize a "visual reminder" that there is a child in the car, such as a stuffed animal.

"Put that stuffed animal in the front seat with you," Null said, or put your wallet, purse, or briefcase "in the back seat with the child ... so it's one more reason to go and look at the backseat when you get out of the vehicle."

In 25% of cases where a child died from PVH, the child – typically ages two to five – gained access to the car on their own, Null said.

"Keep your cars locked. Keep keys and key fobs away from children," Null said. "Teach children if they are ever trapped in a car, number one, try to go out the front doors. Or, honk the horn, get people's attention."

In 20% of cases, Null said, the child was knowingly left in the vehicle "while a parent goes and does something else."

"There's lots of other real hazards besides the heat," Null said. "The kids that get left in cars, there are cases where they have put the vehicles in gear, and they've killed other people or killed themselves."

Or, Null said, there are cases where a parent leaves a child in the car to run into the store, and "someone carjacks the car, and the kid is in the back."

New technology has its limits.

While there are developing technologies to prevent hot car deaths, Null said they may have limited impact in the immediate future. Part of the sweeping infrastructure bill that passed in 2021 included requirements for new cars to have the technology to alert drivers of a passenger left in the car.

"That will save some lives, but it's only gonna be in new cars," Null said, noting that less than ten percent of cars on the roads are new. "Only about a third of the people buying new cars are age 45 or less, sort of in the parenting age group."

Ultimately, Null said, it comes down to awareness.

"I wish I could say definitively we're making more progress," Null said of the annual PVH deaths. "That number needs to be zero."

Read the original article on Insider