A tragedy may have been averted last week when a girl survived being left forgotten in a Greater Pittston YMCA van for about 45 minutes, though credit goes to the girl herself, who had the presence of mind to unlock the vehicle and wait patiently outside to be discovered.
The fate of employees responsible for the girl’s safety following a field trip to a petting zoo is ultimately up to authorities investigating the case, as is the fate of the Y. But the incident is a timely reminder of the risk children face when left in cars on hot summer days.
Perhaps the saddest tragedy is that this still happens, apparently inadvertently (though still inexcusably) at the Pittston Y, but too often deliberately. So far this year there have been at least 17 deaths by heatstroke of children left in cars nationwide, according to the San Francisco State university Department of Geosciences. There were 44 such deaths last year and a total of 623 from 1998 to the present.
Every one of those deaths was avoidable. The same source notes 51 percent of those 623 children were “forgotten” by a caregiver. Another 29 percent occurred when children played in unattended vehicles, and 18 percent when they were intentionally left in a vehicle by an adult.
A survey earlier this year by Public Opinion Strategies in Washington D.C. found 14 percent of parents — nearly 2 million, if the survey reflects national attitudes — said they have intentionally left infants, toddlers and children alone in parked vehicles. For parents of children 3 and under, it jumps to a frightening 23 percent.
Eleven percent of parents admitted to forgetting their child in a car, and for those with children under 3, this potentially fatal absent-mindedness afflicted nearly 25 percent of parents. Dads were almost three times as likely than moms to leave a child alone in a parked car.
And most disturbingly, six percent of those surveyed said they are comfortable letting their young children stay in a parked, locked vehicle for longer than 15 minutes.
Science has long and easily proven the fallacy of such comfort. San Francisco State University noted tests showed the temperature in a car on a sunny day can rise 19 degrees in 10 minutes, 29 degrees in 20 minutes, and 34 degrees in a half-hour.
And no, cracking the window open doesn’t help. The problem is that shortwave radiation from the sun heats surfaces in the car quickly, in turn heating the air — and, if left unattended, a child.
Heatstroke occurs when a person’s core temperature exceeds 104 degrees. Hit 107, and it can be lethal. Even if it’s a comfortable 72 outside the car, in 30 minutes the interior can be 106.
Data suggests a big part of the problem is the advent of airbags. In the three-year period of 1990-92, before airbags became ubiquitous, there were only 11 child deaths by heatstroke. In the three years spanning 2011-13, there were 109.
The theory is that parents find it too cumbersome to keep taking children out of seats and putting them back in, figuring it’s quicker to leave tots in the car for a few minutes. It is also easier for a harried, stressed parent to forget a child is in the back seat than if the youngster sat up front.
Which is why experts recommend putting something else important to you — a purse or cell phone — in the back along with a child. Or keeping a stuffed toy in the child seat and moving it to the front when the tot is buckled in.
But how have reached the point where we are less likely to forget a purse or phone than a human?
We’re talking about children, often too young to know they are being put at risk. Individually and culturally, we need a zero tolerance policy against leaving youngsters alone in a car. Heatstroke is just one risk.
It’s sad that it has to be said, but this truth is clearly self-evident: It is never, ever, okay to leave a child unattended in a car, not even for a minute.