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Children Fatalities in and Around Vehicles

Written by Janet Dewey-Kollen

Non-traffic, non-crash motor vehicle incidents, i.e., children backed over, kids left in vehicles and exposed to excessive heat, injuries that result from a child putting a motor vehicle in motion, result in an estimated 9,160 children treated in hospital emergency rooms each year. Current data shows that at least two children are backed over and killed, and 48 injured, every week in the U.S.

Thanks to the efforts of KIDS AND CARS™, an organization dedicated to reducing the dangers encountered by children in and around passenger vehicles, and to families impacted by heartbreaking losses, the nation is beginning to wake up to this important area of vehicle safety. If your agency has not given serious consideration to this safety issue, it’s time to learn more about these potentially tragic incidents and to incorporate safety messages in your agency’s community outreach activities.

Taylor Johnson’s Story

A backover tragedy can happen to anyone any time…even to good, loving parents who thought they had done all they could to keep their children safe. The story of Officer Anthony Johnson, a law enforcement officer formerly with the Greenville County, SC Sheriffs Office and now with the Palm Beach County, FL Sheriffs Office, tragically proves this point.

On April 4, 2005, Anthony Johnson awoke to a beautiful spring morning just one day after celebrating the birthday of Taylor, his 2-year-old daughter. Taylor was to stay home from daycare that day so Anthony could continue the birthday celebration with his baby girl. With his wife at work, Johnson, just off a 12-hour-shift, gave Taylor breakfast and enjoyed a bit of playtime. He gathered up the baby’s diaper bag and other items to put in his personal car, but first had to move his police unit out of the driveway. Anthony left Taylor in the house playing with a toy.

“I thought that I shut the door to the house all the way with her inside, and maybe I did, but some how Taylor got outside without my knowledge,” Johnson said. “I got into my patrol car, looked down for just a second or two in order to put some paperwork away. I then looked up, started the car, glanced back over my shoulder where I did not see any thing behind me, and I began to back up,” he adds. Then the nightmare began.

According to Johnson, he only backed up 6 to 12 inches and heard something under the car. He pulled forward again thinking ‘Taylor what did you leave under the car?’ “At this point, I opened the driver-side door, still thinking Taylor was inside the house, where I had left her. That was when I saw Taylor lying behind the car, with her arms up over her head. There was a pool of blood coming from the back of her head,” Johnson said. Taylor was not moving or breathing.

He immediately called 911 and got EMS on the way. “I started to give Taylor CPR, even though I knew through my experience as a law enforcement officer she was dead. Now, I have given people CPR before, but I assure you it does not get anymore traumatic than giving it to your own child,” Johnson said.

In thinking back on the accident, he said, “The only thing I can tell other law enforcement officers is to help make their communities aware that these types of tragedies can happen and can happen to anyone.” For parents his message is simple, “always keep a close eye on your children and give them unconditional love and attention.”

Blind Zones and Backover Injuries

Janette Fennell, founder and president of KIDS AND CARS™, documented the problem of children killed in backover incidents. Between 58 and 101 children were backed over and killed in 2002, 2003 and 2004. Based on benchmarking, Fennell believes that the true number of incidents is probably two to three times the number in her database. In 2005, Fennell was successful in spearheading efforts to include language in the federal highway reauthorization bill (SAFETEA-LU) requiring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to begin keeping statistics on non-traffic incidents.

More than 20 reverse-sensing products are now on the market to help warn drivers of potential obstacles behind vehicles. A blind zone is the area at the rear (or front) of a vehicle where a person can’t see from the driver’s seat. Height of the driver and size of the vehicle are factors in the size of blind zones.

For more than three years, Consumer Reports® has measured the rear blind zones of each vehicle that it tests—well in excess of 100 to date—for a short driver (5 feet 1 inches) and an average driver (5 feet 8 inches). To measure the blind zones, a 28-inch traffic cone is positioned behind the vehicle at the point where the driver could just see the top of the cone. The cone is about the height of a 2-year-old child.

Consumer Reports found that blind zone measurements ranged from 1 foot 6 inches for an average-sized driver in a small sports car to an astounding 51 feet 1 inch for a shorter driver in a large pickup. In an article dated 2004, Consumer Reports concluded, “Bottom line: Your best defense against backover accidents is to get out of your vehicle and check behind it just before you back up. If kids are nearby, make sure you can see them while backing up.”

“Cars are not baby-sitters, toys or playgrounds; yet adults continue to put young children at risk by leaving them unattended in vehicles,” Fennell said. “A child should never ever be left alone in a vehicle—no exceptions,” she added.

Since 1999, KIDS AND CARS™ has maintained a national database that is recognized as a source for fatality and injury information and is thoroughly documented. Incidents recorded in the database document almost 1,000 non-traffic, non-crash fatalities to children from 1999 to 2005.

Police Action

When a law enforcement officer comes upon a situation in which children are unattended in a motor vehicle, several appropriate courses of action are available. First, take immediate action to get children out of vehicle in situations where danger is imminent, such as heat, fire, etc. Second, locate the driver and issue a citation. As of December 2005, 11 states had specific laws making it illegal to leave children unattended in motor vehicles (CA, CT, FL, IL, LA, MD NE, NV, PA, TX, WA).

Third, if the state does not have a specific law that makes it illegal to leave children unattended in a vehicle, police can either a) find the parent or caregiver and give them a scolding or (b) charge the parent or caregiver with child endangerment or child neglect.

Unfortunately, a “scolding” will probably not change the dangerous behavior and the child endangerment or neglect charge may seem too harsh. KIDS AND CARS™ believes that law enforcement officers need the specific law against leaving children unattended in motor vehicles as a step to use before the charge rises to the level of child endangerment or neglect.

Hyperthermia

Michelle Struttmann, a mother who suffered a tragic loss, said, “People leave their children unattended for various reasons...to save time, to run quick errands, but always for their convenience. After all, they will be only gone for a minute. How deadly can a minute be? Automobiles can be as lethal as a loaded weapon in the hands of a child. While most parents are cautious not to leave valuables in a vehicle, they often risk the safety of their child.”

More types of non-traffic, non-crash incidents include children left alone in a hot vehicle, i.e., hyperthermia. The number of children who died of hyperthermia after being left unattended in motor vehicles jumped from an average of 29 child deaths annually to 42 in both 2004 and 2005. A study published in Pediatrics reports that at an ambient outside temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures inside a vehicle quickly rose to 134-154 degrees Fahrenheit.

Even at relatively cool outside temperatures, the temperature rise in vehicles is significant on clear, sunny days and puts infants at risk for hyperthermia, concluded researchers. Children’s bodies warm at a rate three to five times faster than an adult’s. Leaving windows opened does not significantly slow the heating process.

According to an article published in Injury Prevention of 171 such fatalities, 27 percent were children who gained access to unlocked vehicles, and 73 percent were children left by adults. Of those left by adults, 54 percent were forgotten, 27 percent were intentionally left, and the intentions were unclear in 18 percent of the cases.

Almost half of unattended deaths were associated with childcare—providers, drivers or baby-sitters. In situations where adults forgot or were unaware that a child was still in the vehicle, the incidents often involved a change in routine. Although seemingly impossible, in 32 cases distracted adults on their way to daycare and then to work, accidentally left their young ones sleeping quietly in a car seat. At the end of the workday the parents, including an engineer, company administrator, college professor, teacher, and a lawyer, returned to the employee parking lot only to discover their tragic mistake.

Adults who deliberately left children in vehicles were reportedly reluctant to wake a sleeping child, or they used the car/child safety seat to restrain the child so the adults could sleep, work, drink, or use drugs or gamble.

Researcher Jan Null, CCM, of Golden Gate Weather Services said, “In the most recent three-year period of 2003-2005, when almost all young children are now placed in back seats instead of front seats, there have been 119 known fatalities from hyperthermia...a 10-fold increase from the rate of the early 1990s.”

Prepare for Summer

During summer months when fatalities most often occur, KIDS AND CARS has available posters, window shades and information cards on the dangers of leaving children unattended in or around vehicles. Also, the group offers tips for parents and caregivers to help them avoid heat-related tragedies.

Do not leave a child in an unattended car, even with the windows down. Be sure that all occupants leave the vehicle when unloading. Don’t overlook sleeping babies. Keep a stuffed animal in the car seat, and when the child is put in the seat, place the animal in the front with the driver. Or place your purse or briefcase on the floorboard in the back seat as a reminder that you have your child in the car. Make “look before you lock” a routine whenever you get out of the car. Have a plan that your child-care provider will call you if your child does not show up for school.

Trunk Entrapment

Children can be trapped in a vehicle or vehicle trunk (trunk entrapment). Tragically, children see an open vehicle trunk compartment or a vehicle back seat as perfect hiding places, only to become trapped and in mortal danger. This was reportedly the cause of the death for four young cousins in Gallup, NM in 1998 and the deaths of an Abilene, TX brother and sister, ages 6 and 4, along with their pet kitten in 2000.

Hyperthermia or asphyxiation is typically the cause of death in these incidents. Vehicles made in 2002 and after are equipped with escape handles in the trunk, but older vehicles do not have releases. Easy-to-use add-on release handles can be bought at www.aablelocksmiths.com.

Safety advocates urge parents and caregivers to always lock their vehicles. If a child is missing, check the car first, including the trunk. Teach children that vehicles are never to be used as a play area.

Children can also be trapped in power windows. Many vehicles in the U.S. vehicle fleet still have power windows switches that operate in a “rocker” motion, as compared to a pull up/push down type of switch. Deaths have been reported when children, leaning out of an open window, inadvertently activated the rocker type window switches with their knees or other body parts. The children are literally strangled to death.

Children who inadvertently set a vehicle into motion are at great risk. Playing driver like mom and dad is very tempting for children. In 1998, 2-year-old Harrison Struttmann and his mother, Michelle, were sitting on a park bench watching boats on the Missouri River. Suddenly, a vehicle put in motion by children ages 2 and 3 raced through the park striking and killing Harrison and seriously injuring his mother. Reportedly, a local storeowner had warned their mother not to leave her toddlers unattended in a running van.

Currently, some —but not all—vehicles have a brake shift interlock device that prevents a gear from engaging unless the brake is depressed. Further, some interlocks do not work in all key positions.

Children can be caught in a burning vehicle. Bored children and matches or lighters can be a lethal combination, especially when the children are left alone in a vehicle. More than 150 children have been injured after starting a fire inside a vehicle or became trapped when the vehicle experienced an electrical or gas line malfunction.

News stories repeatedly recount scenarios where children are rescued, injured, or died after the vehicle they were left in caught fire.

In one particularly egregious case that occurred in Oceanside, CA, a baby-sitter reportedly left six children (ages 2 to 4) in a vehicle that caught fire. These children were saved by bystanders, but children in North Carolina, Utah, and elsewhere were not so lucky. An Illinois mother recently was convicted of reckless homicide because she left her three children alone in a SUV while she went in a store to exchange a ring. Two children were rescued, but a baby was burned alive.

Children have been abducted while left in vehicles. Whether a child is abducted while left alone in a vehicle or accidentally abducted as a result of a vehicle theft, the outcome is often the same: trauma and tragedy. And, as police know, a gas station, convenience or grocery store parking lot, where children are often left unattended in vehicles, is also a venue of choice for car thieves.

Despite these examples, this list of tragedies is not complete. Other incidents that involve children left in vehicles include situations where a child trying to get out of a car seat is strangled and incidents where children find and shoot guns.

What Can Law Enforcement Do?

Enforcement and education are critical steps that agencies can take to help reduce these tragedies. Janette Fennell offers suggestions for enforcement agencies.

Be on the look out for children left unattended in vehicles and take immediate and appropriate action. Recognize that non-traffic, non-crash incidents are significant and often life-threatening events. These events and outcomes are completely within a parent or caregiver’s control. Incorporate education about the issue in vehicle and home safety outreach efforts. One simple way to do this is to include blind-zone measurements and demonstrations of power window at car seat checkup events.

Report all incidents to KIDS AND CARS™ and to NHTSA for inclusion in national databases. Work with local safety advocates to secure passage of specific laws against leaving children unattended in motor vehicles. Contact KIDS AND CARS™ for assistance and model laws.

Like efforts to inform parents that young children should not sit in front of airbags, now is the time for safety communities to rally around efforts to make sure parents and caregivers stop the practice of leaving children alone in and around vehicles. Thanks to organized child passenger safety efforts, the infrastructure is in place to reach out and protect America’s children from these hazards.

Janet Dewey-Kollen is a longtime traffic safety advocate and has worked at the local, state and national levels. She is also a freelance writer and a child passenger safety technician. E-mail her with topic requests at projplan@aol.com.

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2006

Rating : 8.0


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