5 Myths About Leaving Kids in Cars and 5 Tips to Prevent Heatstroke

Heatstroke is one of the leading causes of death among children. And no matter how impossible it may seem, even the best of parents can forget a child in the backseat of their car.

With another case Thursday of a child left in an unattended vehicle, this time in Fairfax County, here are some myths and the truth about kids in cars, and some ways to keep yourself from making a fatal mistake.

Myth 1: This could never happen to me. That's an understandable reaction. But take a moment to read some of the reporting on cases of children left in cars, including this excellent examination by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post. As the story points out, habit, which occurs in an ancient part of the brain, can hijack conscious thought. That's especially true if you are under stress or have a small change in routine -- such as being asked to drop off the child when you usually drive straight to work.

And that's true no matter how good a parent you are. "The quality of prior parental care seems to be irrelevant," says a memory expert quoted in the article, who has consulted on a number of cases of kids left in cars.

As unimaginable as forgetting a child is, it's happened to a notable businessman, a hospital CEO, a postal clerk, a social worker, a police officer. It's happened to a soldier, a mental health counselor, even a NASA rocket scientist.

Myth 2: There is a recent spike in the number of child heatstroke deaths. Not exactly. The number has grown since the 1980s and early 1990s, when pediatricians began to recommend that children in car seats ride in the back, where they are less likely to be injured by an inflating air bag. Since that change was made, the number of children killed by air bags has plummeted, but the number of children who die by heatstroke in cars each year has risen and remained between 30 and 50 each year since 1997 (See this chart by KidsandCars.org.) Heatstroke deaths do tend to occur in the spring and summer, because of the temperatures.

Myth 3: It's OK to leave your children in an unattended car, just for a minute. Our parents did it when we were kids. It is not OK -- not even for a minute. It doesn't take long for a car to heat up, and younger children are more sensitive to heat than older children and adults. In 80-degree weather, it takes about 10 minutes for a car to reach deadly temperatures; in an hour your car can reach 123 degrees. Tests show that cracking the window had little effect and the biggest factor was probably the vehicle's interior color. 

Myth 4: Heatstroke is only a concern during the summer. While most deaths occur in June, July or August, records show each month except January has had at least one recorded child death since 2008. Even in 60-degree weather cars can heat up to well above 110 degrees and be fatal for kids. Heatstrokes become fatal for children once a child's temperature reaches 107 degrees.

Myth 5: Heatstroke only happens when parents forget children in vehicles. More than half the time, deaths occur when a child was forgotten by the caregiver, but almost 30 percent of deaths occurred while children were playing in unattended vehicles. Another 17 percent of deaths occurred when a caregiver intentionally left a child in the vehicle. 

Tips for prevention

Here are some ways to keep your kids safe and avoid a lifetime of regret.

1. Create routines. Every day, whether the baby is with you or not, open the back door and look in the back seat before locking the door and walking away. 

2. Give yourself visual reminders. Place your bag, briefcase, or even your shoe in the backseat with your child -- anything that you must take with you before going to your next destination will remind you not to leave your child in the car.

3. Give yourself audible reminders. Sometimes it can be as simple as telling yourself out loud, “remember to get the kids,” or “don’t forget the kids.”

4. Don’t ever let your kids play in the car. Keep keys out of your child's reach, and make sure the doors and trunk are locked when it’s not being used.

5. If you see a child left in a car, call the police immediately.

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