Every year, an average of 37 toddlers and infants succumb to vehicular heatstroke; to date, 23 children have already died from it this year. Vehicular heatstroke is the term used for heat-related deaths inside vehicles. These deaths are tragic and entirely preventable. Most of the time, the parent or caregiver doesn’t purposefully leave their child in the car (though there have been a couple of documented cases where that did happen); instead, a change in routine or lack of cues makes people forget baby is in the backseat.
Maybe your child is talkative and loud, and you don’t have a problem forgetting them because you have that audio cue. But what happens when the baby falls asleep, and you forget that they are in the backseat? You drive to work, grab your work bag from the passenger side seat, and go about your day, all while a baby is still in the backseat. Or, maybe someone else normally takes the child to daycare. Today, though, it’s your turn. Since you normally don’t take the baby, and again since there are no cues reminding you of their presence, your mind slips up and you leave them in the car when you go to the mall, and you come back to a tragedy. It’s that simple.
How could anyone possibly prevent this, if it can happen to anyone? The best thing to do is always check the backseat before leaving your car. Better yet, put something you’ll need to use—your cellphone or wallet, for example—in the backseat, so that before you go into work, the store, or wherever your destination is, you’ll open the back door and see your child. You can also try to have your childcare provider call you if you don’t show up with your child by a certain time, though it’s best to just get in the habit of always checking the back seat of your car.
Vehicular heatstroke can also occur when children get into a car on their own, they heat up too quickly and pass out before they can get out. Always prevent children from getting into the car alone by locking all the doors, including the trunk, whenever the car isn’t in use. And never, ever leave your child in a running car when you go to the market for “just a minute”. Leaving a child alone in a running car? That’s a misdemeanor, per RCW 46.61.685. Plus, it’s just irresponsible. You might run into a friend in the store, and end up spending a half hour catching up, or the lines might be extremely long. Leaving a child unattended in a car running is not a good idea and illegal.
Don’t leave Fido in the car, either. On an 80-degree day, the inside of a car can warm up to 100 degrees in just 10 minutes. Either leave your dog at home, bring the dog in with you (if you’re going to a dog-friendly venue), or find someone to take care of your dog while you run errands. Leaving a pet in the car under dangerous conditions is also illegal, per RCW 16.52.340, and your pet can quickly be overcome by the heat.
Washington State currently has no “Good Samaritan Law” when it comes to breaking the windows of a car to rescue a helpless child or animal. If you do see a child or pet stuck in a hot car, call 911 or animal control immediately; don’t wander around to try to find the parent or owner. Time is precious and heatstroke deaths can occur quickly. You can help prevent unnecessary deaths by being mindful as the summer heat starts to rise.
Ken Selander is a Seattle children’s personal injury and wrongful death lawyer, and he represents families who have suffered the death of their children. Ken will review your potential case to determine whether your child’s death was due to the negligence of a caregiver.