As the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), I have the best job in the world. I work with a talented and committed staff to save lives and reduce injuries on our roadways each and every day. But all my years of safety work did not prepare me for the impact of the tragedy of young children who die or are severely injured from heatstroke when they’re inadvertently left alone in a vehicle, often strapped in their car seat.
The knowledge of the horrific death a child experiences when trapped in a hot car is unbearable. But this tragedy can and does happen — more than 20 times this year alone. Last year, 31 children across the United States lost their lives to heatstroke. And while that number is the lowest in six years, from our perspective even one child dying is unacceptable.
What makes this number even more intolerable is that every single one of these deaths is 100 percent preventable. It is as simple and agonizing as parents and caregivers with a lot on their mind who forget they have a passenger in the back seat. They arrive at their destination, lock the car, and walk away — leaving the child behind. Or, an unattended child playing outside, climbs into an unlocked car and becomes trapped inside. When the thermometer hits the low 80s, the temperature inside a vehicle can reach deadly levels in only 10 minutes, even with a window rolled down two inches.
Temperatures inside a vehicle can climb to dangerous levels in a matter of minutes. This video reveals a series of little-known facts about heatstroke, like the fact that heatstroke can happen when outside temperatures are as low as 57 degrees, and that children’s body temperatures can rise up to five times faster than that of an adult.
In 2011, NHTSA convened a first-of-its-kind heatstroke roundtable and conducted a series of town hall discussions in the states hardest hit by heatstroke fatalities.
Last year we delivered on our promise to bring safety advocates, industry experts and health and law enforcement professionals together for our public education campaign: “Where’s Baby? Look Before You Lock.” Last summer I barnstormed across the country to raise awareness of heatstroke’s potential dangers.
Concurrently we also commissioned research to evaluate after-market products designed to prevent a child from being unintentionally left behind in a vehicle. I wish I could report today that we’ve discovered a technological silver bullet that would end heatstroke deaths immediately. Instead, the results indicate that currently-available notification devices are not sufficiently effective or reliable as a stand-alone preventive measure. We must recognize that devices and technologies do not address the 20 – 40 percent of children who are killed when they gain access to a vehicle without an adult knowing about it. Parents and caregivers need to remember the importance of locking cars and keeping the keys out of a child’s reach.
As I said, the tragedy within the tragedy is that these deaths are 100 percent preventable. The key is behavioral change, to lead the way, with an eye towards supporting innovation in the future. It’s time to do more. NHTSA cannot succeed alone.
NHTSA is rallying its state and safety partners to spend the day talking about the dangers of heatstroke on social media. We will be on Twitter and Facebook all day today, talking about the dangers of heatstroke, sharing tips to help parents, and pointing those who want to get involved to our resources. Check out our National Heatstroke Prevention Day flyer for the all the details, and reach out to anyone and everyone who can help us stop these deaths.