It’s a nightmare come true: In a moment of distraction, a baby is left behind in a parked vehicle. The sun beats down, the car heats up and the child—unable to escape the sweltering vehicle—dies of heatstroke.
A Virginia father lived this horror last month. He reportedly forgot to drop off his 5-month-old son at daycare on his way to work, instead leaving the infant strapped into his car seat all day. The father realized his fatal error only after he went to pick up the boy after work and found him unresponsive in the backseat. By then, it was too late. Nearly 40 children die every year after being left in hot cars.
Animals, too, suffer and die every summer after their guardians forget them—or intentionally leave them—in a hot vehicle. Two days before the Virginia boy’s death, Jeg, a drug-sniffing dog with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, had to be euthanized after his human partner reportedly left him in a hot patrol car for more than an hour. The officer was apparently switching vehicles when he left to respond to a crash and forgot that Jeg was still in the first car.
Forgetting a family member in a vehicle may seem impossible, but any of us can make this deadly mistake if our normal routines change, if we are stressed or sleep-deprived or if we are simply distracted. We must do whatever it takes to avoid leaving a passenger behind in our vehicles and to come to the rescue of any living being we see left in a hot car.
In the summer, it doesn’t take long for parked cars to turn deadly: On a 78-degree day, the temperature inside a parked car can soar to between 100 and 120 degrees in just minutes, and on a 90-degree day, the interior temperature can reach as high as 160 degrees in less than 10 minutes. Leaving the windows partially open and parking in the shade do not keep vehicles cool enough to be safe.
Infants and children are especially vulnerable to hyperthermia because their body temperature rises three to five times faster than an adult’s does and they are less able to lower their body temperature by sweating. Dogs, too, are much more susceptible to heatstroke because they can cool themselves only by perspiring tiny amounts through their footpads and by panting—which is ineffective when the interior of the car is as hot as a sauna.
Heatstroke, organ and brain damage and death can occur in minutes in both children and animals, so it’s crucial to ensure that they are never left in a parked car—even for “just a minute.” Some ways to do this include getting into the habit of always checking the front and back of the vehicle after parking; placing a necessary item on the floor in the backseat (such as a purse or briefcase) and keeping a stuffed toy in the child’s car seat when it is not in use and placing it in the front passenger seat as a reminder whenever the child is in the car seat.
If we see children or dogs left in hot cars, their life depends on our quick action. Having the car’s owner paged and/or calling 911 immediately is essential. But if the victim is showing signs of heatstroke (red, flushed skin with no sweating; difficulty breathing and nausea in children and restlessness, heavy panting, vomiting, lethargy and lack of coordination in dogs), get him or her out of the car and into the shade as quickly as possible, cool the victim with water and immediately call 911 or a veterinarian.
Kids and animals count on us to keep them safe. It takes only a second to double-check the backseat or drop off dogs at home before running errands, but the pain of losing a loved one because of a deadly mistake lasts forever.