Rallying to stop hot-car deaths with Arizona among most prone states

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When Dawn Peabody’s in-laws visited from Montana, the family decided to go out to breakfast together in what began as an already warm day.

All included, the eight relatives took three separate vehicles to the restaurant.

Ms. Peabody said that on a normal Saturday morning, her youngest child, Maya, would go to work with her while her husband, Wes, stayed at home with their other children. But that morning after breakfast the child went home with Wes so she could spend time with her grandparents.

It was this change of routine that ended in tragedy.

About two hours after arriving home, Wes came the grim conclusion that he had left Maya in the car. She died of heat stroke.

A disrupted routine is often a factor in unknowingly leaving a child in a car, she said.

“Muscle  memory can cause this type accident,” Ms. Peabody said. “You go down the street and have to take a right instead of a left due to someone else’s car accident. Just that simple change in your routine can set you on auto pilot and make you forget. In our situation, Maya would have gone to work with me but we had family in town. So she rode in a different car and went home with dad.”

That was 12 years ago and since then Ms. Peabody has been honoring her daughter by advocating for child safety so more such tragedies don’t happen.

Where’s the baby?

Others have gotten involved to bring attention to this issue because it has not gone away — across the nation, more than 800 children have died of heat stroke due to being left in hot cars.

Closer to home, Arizona ranks fourth overall in hot-car deaths for children, according to Golden Gate Weather Services, a private meteorology firm.

This month, the Arizona Constable’s Association in conjunction with other law enforcement and community partners launched Where’s the Baby?, a campaign to bring awareness to hot-car deaths, offering a free window cling visual reminder that can be placed inside the vehicle’s windshield or side window as a tool to remind everyone to look in the interior of the vehicle when exiting for kids and pets.

Mike Branham, constable for the Arrowhead justice court, said every hot-car death or injury was and is preventable.

He said children and pets may heat at a rate three to six times that of an adult and even with outside temperatures in the 80 degree range, temperatures of 130 to 150 may be reached inside a car within a few moments of being parked.

Mr. Branham said he was seeing too many hot-car deaths so he moved to put the project in action, speaking with other constables and a host of other law enforcement and public safety partners, beginning the formative stages of the Where’s the Baby? campaign, a simple but effective reminder right there in plain sight within the car.

He said he was particularly moved by the hot-car death of a three-year-old in Gilbert last September.

“The dad accidentally left the toddler in the car after dropping off two older kids at school. After realizing his mistake a couple of hours later, neighbors heard him screaming and came to help but it was too late. Anyone can and will be distracted, and kids and pets are a community treasure for all of us to protect,” Mr. Branham said.

“The constables were looking for a safe economical way to remind everyone to check for kids and pets now. The hot weather is just around the corner,” he said. “We serve and protect in many ways in public safety. Prevention is our greatest gift to the community. We save one life and remind one parent it was all well worth it.”

Arizona has a Good Samaritan law that protects an individual from prosecution if he or she  breaks a car window to remove a child or animal if a good faith belief exists the child or pet is in imminent danger of injury or death. The individual must notify law enforcement or emergency medical personnel before entering the vehicle and stay with the child or pet until authorities arrive.

Mr. Branham said the Good Samaritan law fits nicely with the Where’s the Baby? campaign.

“We were supportive of the new statute when it was being developed,” he said.

Technology

For 10 years, Ms. Peabody has been a child safety advocate and volunteer for KidsAndCars.org, a nonprofit that focuses on tragedies that occur from leaving children unattended in or around vehicles. This includes not just hot-car deaths but backovers and frontovers, among others.

She has worked with KidsAndCars.org, conducting education and public awareness campaigns about hot-car deaths.

Ms. Peabody said Arizona has made great strides in getting the word out about hot-car deaths, but now is the time to add a technology component.

She has been advocating for all vehicles to come equipped with a system that would alert a driver if a child has been left in the vehicle. The Hot Cars Act has been recently introduced in Congress, which would require the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to issue a rule requiring all new passenger motor vehicles to be equipped with a child safety alert system.

The technology is already available — there is a rear-occupant alert system that reminds the driver to check the back seat when the engine is shut off if the back door was opened prior to driving somewhere with an audio and visual alert. This system is available in automobiles.

“Right now, if I don’t buckle my seat belt, my vehicle let’s me know. If it’s low on windshield wiper fluid, my vehicle let’s me know. But if I leave something as precious as my child in the back seat, my vehicle does nothing but act as an oven,” she said.

Studies

Researchers at Arizona State University and the University of California at San Diego found in 2018 that if a car is parked in the sun on a hot summer day, in about an hour its dashboard can hit about 160 degrees —  the temperatures at which eggs fry and human skin can suffer third-degree burns. One hour is also about how long it can take for a young child trapped in a car to suffer heat injury or even die from hyperthermia, according to the study.

For vehicles parked in the sun during a simulated shopping trip, the average cabin temperature hit 116 degrees in one hour, according to the study. Dashboards averaged 157 degrees, steering wheels 127 degrees, and seats 123 degrees in one hour.

For vehicles parked in the shade, interior temperatures were closer to 100 degrees after one hour, according to the study. Dashboards averaged 118 degrees, steering wheels 107 degrees and seats 105 degrees after one hour.

Nancy Selover, Arizona state climatologist and research professor in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, said parents should not be deceived by comfortable weather.

“It’s not a question of how hot it is outside or if we have gotten to summer yet. And it’s not a question of whether you are in the southwestern states. The moment you close the vehicle and the sun is coming in, it will heat up the surfaces of the car and the heat won’t escape. Even if windows are cracked,” Ms. Selover said. “As adults, we sweat and have a more efficient cooling system. Children don’t have that mechanism, so we need to be more careful with kids.”

To get a sticker

Clings may be obtained statewide through any of Arizona’s 76 Constables.

The Arrowhead precinct’s constable is Mike Branham. He can be reached at 602-390-2184 or emailed at Mike.Branham@maricopa.gov.

Prevention/safety tips

Below are some simple tips parents and caregivers can follow to prevent heat stroke tragedies.

  • Never leave children alone in or around cars; not even for a minute.
  • Make it a habit of opening the back door everytime you park to ensure no one is left behind. To enforce this habit, place an item that you can’t start your day without in the back seat -employee badge, laptop, phone, handbag, etc.
  • Ask your child care provider to call you right away if your child hasn’t arrived as scheduled.
  • Clearly say out loud and confirm who is getting each child out of the vehicle. Miscommunication can lead to everyone thinking someone else removed the child.
  • Keep vehicles locked at all times, especially in the garage or driveway. Ask neighbors and visitors to do the same.
  • Never leave car keys within reach of children.
  • If you see a child alone in a vehicle, get involved. Call 911 immediately. If the child seems hot or sick, get them out of the vehicle as quickly as possible.
  • If a child is missing, immediately check the inside, floorboards and trunk of all vehicles in the area very carefully. A child may lock the car doors after entering a vehicle on their own, but may not be able to unlock them.
  • Be especially careful during busy times, schedule changes and periods of crisis or holidays. This is when many tragedies occur.
  • Use drive-thru services when available (restaurants, banks, pharmacies, dry cleaners, etc.) and pay for gas at the pump.

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