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The Informed Parent

Children And Cars: A Deadly Combination

by Shanna R. Cox, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Dec. 20, 2004

We Californians rely on our cars almost as much as our right hand. The majority of the time the family car serves as transport to school and sports events. Since cars are such an integral part of our daily lives the dangers of them are often forgotten. A vehicle’s utility can be a double-edged sword when children are involved.

Unfortunately, the association between children and cars has not been a pleasant one in these past summer months. Last year saw a record number of childhood deaths related to hyperthermia as a result of being left unattended in cars. Many parents are unaware of how quickly the temperature in a car rises and the consequences this rise can lead to for their child.

In 2003, more than forty children, ranging in age from a month-to-four years, died as a result of being left unattended in a car. This year’s statistics closely parallel these numbers, showing little increase in awareness among the general public. Children are at particular risk for the rapid development of hyperthermia, defined as a core body temperature greater than one hundred and four degrees. As a consequence of their immature regulatory system a child’s core body temperature may rise as much as three times more rapidly than an adult’s in the same circumstances. On an average California day, with temperatures in the seventies, studies have shown interior car temperatures may rise twenty degrees Fahrenheit in ten minutes, and fifty degrees over the course of one or two hours. It is clear from this information how inaccurate it is to think that leaving a child or family pet for “just a few minutes” is acceptable. In fact, this kind of misinformation can be deadly.

Cracking the windows does little to lower interior temperatures. Interior color can affect how quickly and to what maximum temperature the inside might reach. The darker the color the more quickly the interior heats. A black interior might reach one hundred and fifty degrees within ninety minutes. This would be lethal to a child left inside. It could also cause a third degree burn to a child’s skin within seconds upon exposure when replaced into a car. Parents always must be cognizant of the rapid fluctuations their car may undergo over the course of a day’s errands. California’s “Kaitlyn’s Law” specifies that no child six years of age or younger may be left in an unattended vehicle without direct supervision of an individual at least twelve years of age. Breaking this law holds a monetary fine with more severe consequences for repeat offenses.

From an early age children should be cautioned not to play near, in, or around cars. Parents should always leave their vehicle locked and their keys out of reach of little fingers. Investigative toddlers can easily dislodge a vehicle by shifting a gear, starting a car or removing a brake. Therefore, none of these options should be available for them to fall upon. Vehicles with “rear vision or alarm” are strongly encouraged for families with small children. You may not be able to see a toddler or infant who has found his way behind a vehicle or on a driveway. This child may be out of sight of the driver who is in a rush to get to work or go to the store. Share this information with your family, neighbors, caregivers, and might save a life!

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