Jim Adler | The Tough, Smart Lawyer
By Jim Adler July 8, 2016

It seems unthinkable, yet tragedies continue across America as adults leave children alone in cars — cars whose temperatures, especially in summer months, can severely harm or kill children in minutes due to hyperthermia, or elevated body temperature.

How does this happen? Many drivers simply forget a child is in the back seat, though some leave kids alone in cars deliberately, perhaps thinking they’ll be gone only a few minutes, so what difference does it make?

In truth, it makes a huge difference. Safety experts say that in just 15 minutes a child can suffer life-threatening kidney or brain injuries inside a hot car.

In an enclosed car, or even one with a window cracked, the vehicle quickly can become like a furnace in hot weather, injuring or killing the child inside. Pets, too, often suffer such a fate when left inside vehicles.

Studies show that in one hour, a car with its windows up in 80-degree outside temperature can have a 123-degree temperature inside. Transparent windows allow the sun to shine in, and vehicle parts such as dashboards or steering wheels can absorb this heat and convey it to the air inside.

The human body can suffer heat stroke when its temperature exceeds 104 degrees. When the body reaches a 107-degree temperature, cells are damaged and organs begin to shut down, leading to death.

What’s worse for children is that their thermoregulatory systems aren’t as efficient as adults,’  and their body temperatures warm three to five times more quickly. 

Texas Law About Leaving Kids in Cars

In Texas, leaving kids in cars alone is against the law — at any time and in any weather, and regardless of the outcome.

Texas’ law about leaving kids in cars is Texas Penal Code § 22.10. It states that a person commits a Class C misdemeanor offense when that person “intentionally or knowingly leaves a child in a motor vehicle for longer than five minutes, knowing that the child is (1) younger than seven years of age;  and (2) not attended by an individual in the vehicle who is 14 years of age or older.”

According to child safety advocates at KidsAndCars.org, Texas is one of just 19 states that have laws forbidding persons from leaving children alone in cars — whether the child is injured or not.

But even with its law, Texas is the leader nationally in hot-car deaths of children, according to research by San Francisco University’s Department of Earth and Climate Science.

Neighboring Louisiana also has unattended child laws concerning kids left in cars. In June of 2016, police in East Baton Rouge, LA arrested the father of a baby, 8 months old, who died of hyperthermia, then charged him with negligent homicide.

The man said he was supposed to leave the girl at a daycare facility and forgot, then left her in the vehicle when he parked at a school where he was running a baseball camp.

Temperatures in Baton Rouge went as high as 93 degrees that day. That meant a car interior could reach 110 degrees in just 10 minutes and 120 degrees in 20 minutes.

In another example, a father in the Atlanta area was indicted on murder charges after his son, 22 months old, died when left in a hot car in 2014.

An animal left alone in a car also can bring charges to an adult.

Officer Juan Luis Cerillo Jr., 37, of San Juan Police, in South Texas, was charged with cruelty to non-livestock animals after leaving his K-9 partner, Rex, in a hot car in McAllen. He was fined $4,000 after the death of the police dog, a Belgian Malinois.

Child Deaths in Hot Cars Soar

Though public awareness of the problem is growing due to news reports of hot car fatalities, the number of child deaths in hot cars has soared in recent years.

In early June of 2016, the National Safety Council reported that about three times as many children — 11, compared to 4 — had died this year compared to this time last year after being left inside vehicles which became overheated. But by early July, with summer underway, San Jose State University reported that 16 children already had died in 2016.

Three of those deaths have been in Texas, with one in Houston. On June 11, Evan Trapolino, 3, died after being trapped inside a locked car in north Houston and then going into cardiac arrest.

Houston Police said the boy left his house without his parents’ knowledge and entered the car, then couldn’t exit because of child safety locks. When his absence was noted, his family searched for him for up to 45 minutes before finding him in the car. He later died at a hospital.

Since 1998, an average of 37 kids died in hot cars annually, according to the NSC. That’s a total of 661 heat stroke deaths of children in hot cars from 1998 through 2015.

Of those, almost a third of them were under 1 year old and 22 per cent were 1 year old, so more than half were helpless infants.

Hot Car Deaths Start With Forgetfulness

This horrible statistic concerns one of the most preventable vehicles deaths imaginable, since the vehicle is not even moving. Not only that, but simple forgetfulness causes most of hot car deaths.

San Jose State University research showed the following breakdown for how these tragedies have happened since 1998:

  • 54 per cent of children were forgotten by their caregiver
  • 29 per cent of children were playing in an unattended vehicle — a vehicle which should have been locked to prevent this
  • 17 per cent of children were left in a vehicle intentionally by an adult

How to Avoid Hot Car Deaths

Safety experts say much of the problem involves adults who are self-absorbed or perhaps sleep-deprived and stray from a set routine when running errands, then simply forget that a child is in the back seat. To avoid hot car deaths, they recommend placing an item belonging to the child in the front seat as a reminder when a driver exits the vehicle.

Or, place something vital that will be needed upon exiting — such as a purse, briefcase or cell phone — in the back seat where the child is located.

Jim Adler & Associates strongly urges all drivers to be aware of child passengers at all times. A small child’s life is a horrible price to pay for mere forgetfulness.

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