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Opinion: Check back seat to prevent tragedy

The break from hot weather we’ve experienced this week gives us time to take a breath, but the heat will return as always in an Arkansas summer, bringing with it heat-related dangers.

So far this year nationally, 17 children have died after being left alone in a hot car. In many cases, the tragedy of a child’s accidental death is just that: tragic and accidental. An exhausted parent whose daily routine has been disrupted honestly forgets an infant in the back seat.

From 1990 to 1992, before airbags became popular and many children still rode in the front seat, there were just 11 known deaths of children from heatstroke. However, the three-year period from 2011 to 2013, when nearly all children were placed in the back seat, saw at least 109 heatstroke deaths, a 10-fold increase, according to information prepared by Jan Null for the Department of Earth & Climate Sciences at San Francisco University.

From 1998 to the present, 623 children have died, with an average of 38 child heatstroke deaths a year, according to Ms. Null. She notes also that many of these deaths occur on relatively mild days: When the outside temperature is 80 degrees, the temperature inside a car can reach 123 degrees in 60 minutes.

That kind of heat could be lethal for anyone exposed for a long enough period, but children are especially at risk, according to Dr. Sam Smith, chief surgeon at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, in a column published in the Pine Bluff Commercial.

Children are more at risk “because their little bodies absorb heat more quickly and have trouble cooling off. Sweating won’t cool down an infant or young child in the same way that it does an adult,” he wrote. Plus, babies and toddlers in car seats can’t get out of a hot car or even remove their clothes as an older child or adult might do.

Dr. Smith notes that statistics compiled by the Injury Prevention Center at Arkansas Children’s Hospital show more than half the deaths of children in cars are the result of a caregiver forgetting a child in the back seat. Another 29 percent of the deaths result from children playing in a vehicle and becoming trapped. Eighteen percent occur when children are intentionally left in cars.

Whether you travel with children or not, you can take steps to prevent many of these deaths.

First, NEVER leave a child alone in a car, not even for a minute, not while you run into the store for just one thing, not while you carry the groceries into the house, not while you use a restroom.

“There is no safe amount of time to leave children alone in the car,” Dr. Nathan Allen, an emergency medicine doctor at the University of Chicago, stated on Web MD.

Sure, it can be inconvenient to get children in and out of a car seat, and it can be difficult to tote them while you make a brief stop. But they are little for such a short time. Surely we can accept these small aggravations as the very small cost of keeping our children safe.

People who are not used to transporting children should create reminders for themselves when they do. Keep a doll or stuffed animal strapped in a child safety seat when the child is not there, and move the doll to the front seat to remind you a child is in the car. Put your briefcase or purse in the back seat so when you get to your destination you will have to look in the back.

Anyone who transports children ever should develop the habit of looking in the back seat at the end of every single trip.

When it is parked, keep your car locked and store your keys where they are not accessible to children so they cannot get into the car to play. San Francisco University recommends that when a child is missing, adults should check pools first, then any nearby cars, including the trunks. Although most trunks have an emergency release in the trunk, children may not know to look for it or be able to operate it.

If you see an unattended child in a car, call 911 immediately. If the child appears to be in distress, take steps to get him or her out of the car as quickly as possible, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration urges.

Someone, whether it is a car manufacturer or a carseat maker or a smart phone app designer, needs to develop something that sounds an alarm if a child is left in a car. It could be as simple as a sensor that recognizes weight in a car seat when doors are shut and the driver’s seat is empty. It could be as sophisticated as a cellphone app that notifies parents when children aren’t where they are supposed to be: If an iPhone can track a car or another handheld device, it can track a diaper.

Until such an alarm is widely available, remember this: Never leave a child alone in a car.

The stakes are just too high.

Southwest Times Record

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