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Look Before You Lock: Children and Pets in Hot Cars

On June 29, we broke a record in Washington, D.C.: 104 degrees Fahrenheit-3 degrees warmer than the high set almost 80 years ago. In fact, the first six months in 2012 have been the hottest in the mainland U.S. since temperature records began in 1895.

While extreme heat can contribute to a variety of health issues for people of all ages, for children and pets, the danger is amplified in cars.

Heatstroke is the leading cause of non-crash, vehicle related deaths for children under the age of 14, with at least 33 fatalities reported in 2011 alone (NHTSA). Since 1998, over 500 children have died from heat stroke while leftWhere's baby? Look before you lock. unattended in a vehicle, and many more children have suffered from injuries such as brain damage, blindness or hearing loss. To combat this tragedy, NHTSA recently launched a new national campaign: “Where’s baby? Look before you lock.”

And as NHTSA reminds us, children most commonly experience hyperthermia because their presence is breaking the caregiver’s routine, and they are therefore forgotten inside the vehicle (52% of occurrences). The next two most common circumstances of in-vehicle hyperthermia are when a child is playing in an unattended vehicle (30%), or when the child is intentionally left in the car (17%), but the caregiver is unaware of the danger (SFSU).

This tragedy can and should be avoided. Here are some tips to help avoid it:

  1. Understand that children don’t withstand heat the way adults do: a child’s body temperature can rise up to five times faster than an adult’s (SFSU).
  2.  Never leave a child in an unattended vehicle-even with the windows open, the air conditioning on, or if you think you will only be gone for a couple minutes. Cracking the windows does very little to reduce the temperature inside a vehicle.
  3. Make a habit of checking the front and back seat of your vehicle before locking it. You can place your purse or briefcase in the backseat, forcing you to check there. Consider keeping a stuffed animal in the child’s car seat; when you place the child in the seat, move the stuffed animal to the front seat, as a reminder that the child is with you (SFSU).
  4. Teach your children or grandchildren that cars are not acceptable play areas. Keep the doors locked and the keys out of the child’s reach.
  5. If you ever notice a child alone in a vehicle, immediately call the police or 911. Remove the child from the vehicle quickly and cool him or her off as quickly as possible.
  6. Remember that these rules go for pets as well. Dogs do not have sweat glands-their only way to cool off is panting. In many states, leaving an animal in a vehicle on a summer day is considered animal cruelty.

For more information on keeping children safe around cars, visit Parents Central.

Can you think of any other good ways to remind yourself of the presence of a child in your vehicle? How can we eliminate this tragedy? 

For more tips and information, be sure to follow AARP Driver Safety on Facebook and Twitter.

Image source: NHTSA.