Heat-Related Child Deaths Trigger NHTSA Campaign

By Danny King August 4, 2011

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has recently launched its first-ever campaign with automakers and consumer groups to address the issue of children being left inside hot cars after 21 child passengers were reported to have been killed this summer from hyperthermia, or elevated body temperature. NHTSA officials will meet with parents, advocacy groups, automotive experts and police in states such as Texas, Florida and California, where many of the deaths have occurred, NHTSA said in a statement.

NHTSA Heat Study.jpgSince the beginning of last year, 70 children under the age of 14 died from hyperthermia, including 21 fatalities this summer, NHTSA said, citing the San Francisco State University Department of Geosciences. "Not one of those children should have lost their lives in this horrible way,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in the statement. “We need to do everything we can to remind people to be vigilant and never leave a child alone in or around a motor vehicle.”

Hyperthermia has traditionally been the third-largest cause of not-in-traffic deaths for children, with getting hit by a forward-moving car and getting backed over as the two biggest causes, according to NHTSA. Since 1998, an average of 38 children per year have been killed by excessive heat inside vehicles, with two-thirds of the fatalities occurring between June and August, according to San Francisco State. About half of the child-hyperthermia deaths were caused by a caregiver forgetting about the children in the car, while 30 percent of the fatalities stemmed from children playing unattended in a vehicle.  Three quarters of the 513 child hyperthermia deaths since 1998 involved children under three years old.

“This effort is a great start in an area of safety research that has been woefully inadequate to date,” said Chris Theodore, formerly a Ford vice president car development and former Chrysler senior vice president of engineering. Theodore spoke at Edmunds.com’s “Truly Safe” conference held in Washington, D.C. in May with much of his talk being on children and care safety. “The next step is to understand how children behave and are restrained in a dynamic environment,” added Theodore of NHTSA’s latest campaign. “As most parents know, children slouch, sleep, squirm and fight. To date, most restraint and child seat systems do not maximize protection of our most precious cargo."

110727_hyperthermia_deaths_of_children_left_in_cars.jpgBad Summer
This summer appears to be a particularly dangerous one for children left in cars. This year marked the 26th warmest and 19th driest June on record, reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The stifling heat continued through July and into August. Texas had its warmest June in the 117 years that such records have been kept, while Louisiana and Oklahoma had their second warmest June on record. In May and June alone, 15 child fatalities resulted from in-car hyperthermia, up from an average of 11 fatalities in those months during the previous 13 years, according to San Francisco State.

NHTSA and automaker groups are looking to raise awareness and help prevent the act of leaving a child unattended in a vehicles, which is illegal in 19 states. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has a link to child-safety coalition Safe Kids USA on its website along with the message, "Never Leave a Child Alone in a Vehicle."

"In the 1990s, when reports first surfaced of child fatalities from deploying front airbags, an education campaign to put children in the back seat was highly successful in raising awareness and changing behavior," the Association of Global Automakers (formerly the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers) said in a July 26 statement.  "A coordinated education campaign targeted at parents and other care givers of children could be a similarly effective way to raise awareness of the real risks to unattended children in vehicles – even just for a few minutes when it doesn’t seem that hot out – and to change behavior to make it a habit to look back before you lock up."

Even with the windows cracked open, in-car temperatures may jump as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit in 10 minutes and more than 40 degrees in an hour, with vehicles with darker-colored interiors particularly dangerous. Because a child's core body temperature heats up three to five times as fast as adults, kids are all the more at risk of getting heatstroke, when the body's core temperature hits 104 degrees. NHTSA has posted a "Keeping Our Kids Safe" page on its Web Site.

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