‘Worst week’ for children dying in hot cars; officials raise alarm

WASHINGTON — After a week in which eight children died in oven-like cars across the country, federal officials have launched a new effort to raise awareness of the danger of leaving unattended children in vehicles.

“Since 1998, there have been at least 550 deaths in America because an adult forgot about a young child in a vehicle — with 23 lives lost this year alone,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a letter to Head Start directors and child care providers.

Aug. 1-7 was the “worst week on record for these tragedies with eight children dying from heatstroke in hot vehicles,” the letter said.

Heatstroke is the leading cause of non-crash vehicle death for children 14 and younger, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of the eight deaths, three each occurred in Arkansas and Tennessee and one each in Florida and New Mexico, according to Jan Null, a San Francisco State University meteorologist who tracks child vehicle hyperthermia deaths.


Null took up the issue after the 2001 death of a San Francisco 5-month-old left in a car on an 82-degree day. He was asked to compute how hot the car may have gotten after a couple of hours — he figured 125 degrees.

More than half the deaths are children younger than 2, he said. Based on media reports, Null said 52% of the children who died between 1998 and 2011 were accidentally forgotten by caregivers, 30% were playing in an unattended vehicle and 17% were left in the vehicle intentionally, perhaps by a parent running an errand.

“Everything we know about this terrible danger to children indicates heatstroke in hot cars can happen to any caregiver from any walk of life — and the majority of these cases are accidental tragedies that can strike even the most loving and conscientious parents,” David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in a statement.

Federal officials have been examining technology that could alert the driver when a child has been left in the back seat after the engine has been turned off. But a recent study conducted for the traffic safety administration found the devices “inconsistent and unreliable.”



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