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High Heat, Heavy Heart

Temperature-related deaths of children left in vehicles have become an unfortunate reality, but new safety measures and proposed legislation are aiming to make lasting changes…

Our society is made of a large group of diverse individuals from differing backgrounds and ideologies. However, despite these differences, one thing that we can all agree on is that fewer things are more sacred than the safety and well-being of our children.

Unfortunately, our population is being faced with a growing problem in regards to the care of our littlest ones, and many have already fallen victim to this rapidly spreading epidemic. Parents and caregivers of all walks of life are making the fatal mistake of leaving children under their supervision in vehicles for extended periods of time, and the consequences have proven to be disastrous.

What’s worse —this issue has once again become the forefront of local news because an Orlando day care worker left a toddler in a hot van for an entire day. Authorities said that 3-year-old Myles K. Hill was discovered on the floor of the car after 11 hours of being inside. The institution, Little Miracles Academy, was later investigated and found to be in violation of a rule that required all child care centers to keep an active log of arrival and departures for all children. The worker at fault is now facing criminal charges.

“This is an absolute tragedy which could have been prevented. Myles [is] the 32nd child that has died while being left in a hot vehicle this year, and the fifth in the state of Florida,” says Orlando Chief of Police John Mina.

Days later, another 3-year-old was discovered unresponsive in the back of a day care vehicle, this time in Pensacola. And while one may hope this was just a tragic coincidence, according to the organization, more than 80 Florida children have died in the back of vehicles since 1998. That number only trails the state of Texas, which has seen over 100 related fatalities in nearly two decades.

With ever-increasing rates of occurrence and sporadic timelines, it’s safe to say that this epidemic is a puzzling one. The individuals who have not personally experienced this horrible trauma, and the communities in which they do occur, are left with so many questions and very little specifics as to why this continues to occur.

Assessing facts
Oftentimes, in the wake of unspeakable tragedy, the public is guilty of jumping to conclusions and pointing fingers at the victims. In situations such as these, it’s important to know that a majority of cases occur by complete accident. The responsible adult unknowingly left a child in the backseat of a car and as unimaginable as that may seem, this can happen to anyone, at any time.

A national public service organization,, whose mission is to protect children in and around moving vehicles, has spent many years assessing the circumstances under which these unspeakable acts occur. Their dedicated campaigning led to the current federal regulation that requires an internal trunk release to be standard on all vehicles in the United States. Now, they are credited with being the first organization to start compiling data on vehicle-related incidents involving children, and continue to be at the vanguard of these cases. The organization’s founder, Janette Fennel, is the leading force behind such vigilance, and she hopes to increase public awareness and understanding and has spent several years advocating for better safety measures in vehicles across the board.

“The temperature inside a car can reach 125 degrees in just minutes, and 80 percent of the increase in temperature happens in the first 10 minutes. Cracking the windows does not help slow the heating process or decrease the maximum temperature [because] children have died from heatstroke in cars with temps as low as 60 degrees. A child’s body overheats three to five times faster than an adult body,” says Fennel.

These figures make it clear that no parent should knowingly leave their child in a car, even if only for a few moments. Orange County Sheriff Jeff Williamson feels that agencies should not speculate as to why a parent might make this decision, but he believes that public awareness is key in prevention. “They think the trip will be quick, and that their child will be safe and secure until they get back,” says Williamson.

Williamson is just one of many public information officers who are part of a larger mission to bring awareness and education to the forefront of our community. The Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles is a key player in this campaign, and their public affairs official, Officer Kim Montes, acknowledges the difficulty in getting parents and caregivers to avoid distraction and realize the risks.

“All law enforcement agencies conduct numerous press conference and education events throughout the year,” says Montes. “Yet, even with education and community awareness, we still have people that leave children inside vehicles. I think parents may cut corners sometimes—if they have had a successful encounter with leaving a child briefly in the car, then it becomes OK [to do it again]. The best way for someone to personally understand how quickly it can get hot in a vehicle is to sit inside the closed vehicle themselves while the car is turned off.”

Looking Ahead
To help combat this all-too-common occurrence, lawmakers, car manufacturers and more are working to prevent future tragedies from taking place.

Gov. Rick Scott passed House Bill 131 in early 2016 allowing any individual to break into a locked automobile to rescue any vulnerable life. Additionally, Congress has introduced a bill, Hot Cars Act of 2017, which seeks a mandate for all auto manufacturers to implement a safety alert system for children. This bill looks to allocate funding for further public information efforts, and takes aim at developing a program that will trigger an operator to assess the rear of their vehicle upon deactivation of the engine—an effort that, if successful, will be retrofitted on existing vehicles as well.

In 2016, General Motors was the first to introduce a feature called Rear Seat Reminder in its GMC Arcadia. The system monitors when rear doors are open and closed and once the vehicle’s engine is turned off, the driver is prompted that they have put someone in the backseat. The Rear Seat Reminder is now a standard feature in more than 20 of the manufacturer’s vehicles including Buicks, Cadillacs and Chervrolets.

Nissan’s planned alert system is said to debut with its 2018 models and will work similarly, however it can be programmed to also honk the horn if previous alerts are ignored by the driver.

And technology is advancing safety measures as well. A Texas man recently invented a three-part alarm system that utilizes sound, movement or a pulse to identify if a person—or even a pet—has been left inside a vehicle. If the system is triggered, windows are automatically lowered, a siren is sounded and a strobe light is activated. Furthermore it sends alerts to both first responders and any phone numbers that are programmed into the system. The technology has been patented but is not yet available to car manufacturers.

Other tech-savvy systems are looking to make an impact as well. Sensorsafe is a program found in some Evenflo car seats and will let a driver know if a child is still in the seat after turning off the car thanks to a chip that pairs with the vehicle’s computer system. Driver’s Little Helper is a sensor system placed under the car seat where the child sits and is synched with a battery pack and an app that can be programmed to send notifications when exiting the car. The Soft Clip is a monitor that connects the car seat buckle with a key fob, so if a driver leaves the vehicle without removing a child, both will sound an alarm. Another product known a Sense A Life combines two sensors, one that detects the weight of a car seat with a child placed inside. The other sensor is placed under the driver’s seat and when they exit the car it produces an audible message in addition to sending alerts to both the parent’s phone and another designated number. Intel’s Smart Chip uses Bluetooth to send a signal to a driver’s phone if they move out of range from a sensor that attaches to the child’s car seat.

When it comes to the care of our future generation, it makes little difference whether you are a parent, a caregiver, or just a concerned citizen; every person can play an essential role in keeping children out of harm’s way. With the strengthening of public education efforts and implementation of new legislature, we must remind ourselves and others of the most crucial element for success of these measures; if it takes a village to raise a child, then it must also take a community to keep one safe.

Don’t Forget Fido
Pet owners should add hot cars on the list of threats to their four-legged loved ones

With the prevalence of vehicle-related accidents on a rapid rise, it’s important to remember that a majority of the rules for keeping children safe can also be applied to pets. Our furry family members are just as susceptible, if not more so, to the dangers of heatstroke and rely entirely on us humans for safety.

Clearing primary falsehoods surrounding pets and their vulnerabilities is the most important measure in combating animal deaths. Despite what many people might assume, animals are in no way capable of withstanding higher levels of heat than human beings.

Much like a child that is left in a car, a pet left behind will experience a rapid increase in internal temperate in just a matter of 10 minutes. Rolling the windows down does not effectively reduce the risk of heatstroke and death, and dogs in particular are not easily capable of communicating distress in ways that a human being might. Additionally, dogs do not have the ability to sweat, and rely on their respiratory system to dispel heat.

The normal temperature for an animal falls somewhere between 100.5 and 102.5 degrees, and hyperthermia begins at 106 degrees. If a pet is left in a car, any passerby in Florida is fully within legal rights to rescue an animal, and rescue they should; a dog’s kidneys, liver, GI tract, and central nervous system are all negatively affected in dire circumstances such as these. The kidneys, liver and GI tract will all experience internal lining damage, making rates of infection tremendously high and decreasing chances of normal future function. The circulatory system will experience rapid cell damage and decreased blood flow, leading to difficulty with proper clotting—a complication directly correlated with a higher mortality rate.

In the instance where a dog is rescued from a hot car, the road is long from over. A concerned citizen should not apply extreme cold, such as icepacks, to the animal. The best course of action is to offer moderately temperate water, air conditioning, and a direct route to a veterinarian. If an animal is lucky enough to make it to a clinic alive, it will spend the following one to two days under care and supervision.

Any responsible owner would do well to remember these figures and details when they are considering leaving their pet in a vehicle. The bridge from normal behavior to extreme trauma is a short one, and there is little room for error in protecting the family members who can’t speak. The myriad of risks and complications far outweigh any temporary conveniences associated with leaving a pet in a car, and the truth is clear; it’s just not worth it.—S.J.

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s October 2017 issue.

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