San Francisco State Analyzes Hot Vehicle Hyperthermia Danger

Posted on August 14, 2012

In the midst of a particularly brutal summer, it’s essential that people take the proper precautions when they’re going to be out in the heat for any amount of time.  One of the biggest dangers arises from children being accidentally left in vehicles.  A new report from San Francisco State’s Department of Geosciences discusses the statistics surrounding these tragic circumstances and offers tips on avoiding danger.

First, a brief explanation is in order as to why vehicles get so hot in the first place.  The radiation dispersed by the sun has a relatively easy time getting through the transparent barrier of a car’s window.  Unfortunately, that radiation then makes its way to surfaces inside the vehicle.  Dark surfaces can heat up to temperatures as high as 200 degrees, and the heat generated by that surface warms the air around it.  That’s why a car is able to get hot so quickly.

It’s this propensity to heat up to temperatures greater than what’s tolerable by the human body that has led to so many hyperthermia deaths among children in the United States.  So far this year, there have been 23 child fatalities resulting from hyperthermia, down slightly from 2011’s 33 deaths, but with summer not yet over, those numbers could still go up.

It should be noted that most parents don’t even mean to leave their children in the car.  Of the 494 reported fatalities between 1998 and 2011, 52% occurred because the parent or guardian simply forgot that the child was in the vehicle.  An additional 30% of fatalities occurred because children were able to enter a vehicle without an adult present and the kid then stayed inside for too long.  Only 17% of accidents occurred because the parent purposely left the kid in the car.

Only 19 states have laws on the books geared directly toward parents who leave kids alone in automobiles.  In just under half of all cases, charges were brought against the parent or guardian, and 81% of those instances led to a conviction.  When the caregiver was not a parent, 84% were charged and a whopping 96% of those charges led to a conviction.  Drugs or alcohol only played a part in 7% of fatalities.

Studies show that, on average, the heat of a vehicle can increase by 50 degrees in just one to two hours, and ten minutes is all it takes for a vehicle’s temperature to go up by 19 degrees.  And leaving the window partially down helps hardly at all.  So what can be done to avoid disaster?  First, don’t leave a kid alone in a car, and if you see such an incident, dial 911 at once.  Lock the car at all times, and establish a routine that guarantees you won’t accidentally exit the car before checking the back.

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