Jul 21 2014
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Child ‘Vehicular Heatstroke’: Good Samaritan Laws and Other Public Health Solutions

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Earlier this month, following the heatstroke death of a Georgia toddler who was left in a sweltering car for hours, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to pass a law that specifically protects people from liability for forcibly breaking into cars and rescuing kids they think are at risk of heatstroke. The law requires those individuals to call 911 first and follow instructions.

Many states have Good Samaritan laws that may protect people in such instances, but the specifics vary from state to state, according to Cristina M. Meneses, JD, MS, a staff attorney with the Network for Public Health Law’s Eastern Region. A recent Today show poll found that 88 percent of the 44,000 people asked would break into a car to rescue a child they thought was in danger, but specific laws can increase the response—and potentially remove penalties—while raising awareness of the issue. More such laws could soon follow. Janette Fennell, founder and head of KidsAndCars, a nonprofit based in Kansas City, Mo., which advocates for laws that will protect kids from heat in vehicles, said she’s received inquiries from two states about those laws since Tennessee’s law was passed. Another set of laws that KidsAndCars tracks are those that penalize adults for leaving kids in cars. Nineteen states currently have such laws on the books.

“It’s a good deterrent for anyone who might think, ‘Oh, I’ll just leave them in the car for a minute,’” said Fennell, “because it’s often that minute that turns into much longer and results in injury or death.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than 40 kids—often under age 2—die each year of “vehicular heatstroke.” Seventeen U.S. kids have died after being left or trapped in car since the beginning of 2014. Fennell and other experts say many people just don’t realize how quickly temperatures can climb in a car, even if the window is cracked open a bit—when outside temperatures are in the low 80's, the temperature inside a vehicle can reach deadly levels in only 10 minutes, even with a window rolled down two inches. Children's bodies, in particular, overheat easily; and infants and children under four years old are at the greatest risk for heat-related illness.

NHTSA research shows that heatstroke deaths and injuries often occur after a child gets into an unlocked vehicle to play without a parent or caregiver's knowledge. Other incidents can occur when a parent or caregiver who is not used to transporting a child as part of their daily routine inadvertently forgets a child sleeping in the back.

Last week, KidsAndCars launched a petition drive to encourage NHTSA to require technology in all cars that would remind a driver that there is a child in the back. There are devices parents can install, but a 2012 study by NHTSA found that none that the agency studied were consistently effective.

“You get a warning if you don't buckle your seatbelt, leave a car door open, your gas is low or you leave your headlights on,” said Fennell. “If a child is left behind then you absolutely need a warning.”

Guidelines from NHTSA and other safety experts aimed at never leaving a child unattended in a car include:

  • Make a habit of looking in the vehicle—front and back—before locking the door and walking away
  • Ask childcare providers to call if a child doesn't show up for care as expected
  • Put items in the back seat you’ll have to retrieve such as a purse or briefcase, or put a stuffed animal in sight of the driver to indicate there’s a child in the car.

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Tags: Built Environment and Health, Injury Prevention, Pediatrics, Transportation