With at least 23 deaths and an unknown number of serious injuries to children left unattended in hot vehicles this summer, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is teaming up with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to mobilize the network of Head Start and child care providers nationwide to prevent further tragedies.
In a joint letter issued today, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called on the nation's Head Start directors and child care providers to take advantage of the "Look Before You Lock" campaign materials by sharing them with staff, families, and other community members.
"Safety is our top priority for everyone on our roadways, but we have a special responsibility to protect our most vulnerable passengers," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "While parents and caregivers are the first line of defense, everyone has a role to play in preventing these needless tragedies."
Secretary Sebelius said, "By engaging the nation's network of Head Start staff and child care providers we can potentially reach the parents of the 13 million children in early care and education programs with important information and simple steps that can save lives."
Research by DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows heatstroke is the leading cause of non-crash vehicle deaths for children under the age of fourteen. When outside temperatures are in the low 80s, the temperature inside a vehicle can reach deadly levels in only 10 minutes, even with a window rolled down two inches. Children's bodies overheat four to five times as quickly as an adult, and infants and children under four years old are at the greatest risk for heat-related illness.
Data from the San Francisco State University Department of Geosciences show at least 33 children died last year due to heatstroke -- medically termed "hyperthermia" -- while there were at least 49 deaths in 2010. This year at least 23 children have lost their lives after being left unattended in motor vehicles. An unknown number of children are also injured each year due to heatstroke in hot cars, suffering ailments including permanent brain injury, blindness, and the loss of hearing, among others. Often heatstroke deaths and injuries occur after a child gets into an unlocked vehicle to play unbeknownst to the parent. Other incidents can occur when a parent or caregiver who is not used to transporting a child as part of their daily routine inadvertently forgets a sleeping child in the back of the vehicle.
HHS also announced today that over the next year, it will be launching a nationwide training series for Head Start and other early child care and education providers focused on child health and safety with a specific emphasis on transportation safety. It will include presentations, webinars and materials to support safety in early care and education programs.
One step parents and early child care and education providers can take immediately is to use the cooperative pledge. The pledge available at http://transition.acf.hhs.gov/programs/occ/news/look-before-you-lock-pledge helps families and providers work together to immediately inform each other if a child is expected to arrive at home or at an early care and education center and does not. This simple step of ensuring that adults are notified when a child isn't where he or she is expected to be can be all that it takes for a child to be found in a locked car in time to prevent a tragedy.
Today's announcement builds on a national campaign launched by NHTSA earlier this year calling on parents and caregivers to think: "Where's baby? Look before you lock." As part of the campaign, NHTSA has hosted a series of events with Safe Kids Worldwide to highlight the issue in some of the states hardest hit by heatstroke tragedies -- Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas -- and have additional events planned for Mississippi and Missouri.
"Everything we know about this terrible danger to children indicates heatstroke in hot cars can happen to any caregiver from any walk of life -- and the majority of these cases are accidental tragedies that can strike even the most loving and conscientious parents," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "We hope our campaign not only helps caregivers avoid accidentally harming a child but also clears up some of the misconceptions about the causes of child heatstroke in cars."
NHTSA and its safety partners strongly urge parents and caregivers to take the following precautions to prevent heatstroke incidents:
* Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle -- even if the windows are partially open or the engine is running and the air conditioning is on;
* Make a habit of looking in the vehicle -- front and back -- before locking the door and walking away;
* For caregivers transporting children by van or bus, check every seat to make sure no child is still in the vehicle before locking and leaving the vehicle;
* Ask the Head Start or child care provider to call if the child does not show up for care as expected;
* Do things that serve as a reminder a child is in the vehicle, such as placing a cell phone, purse or briefcase in the back seat to ensure no child is accidentally left in the vehicle, writing a note or using a stuffed animal placed in the driver's view to indicate a child is in the car seat; and,
* Teach children a vehicle is not a play area and store keys out of a child's reach.
NHTSA urges community members who see a child alone in a vehicle to immediately call 911 or the local emergency number. The child should be removed from the vehicle as quickly as possible and rapidly cooled with water if in distress.
NHTSA also warns parents not to depend solely on consumer products intended to prevent a child from being unintentionally left behind in a hot vehicle. A recent study by NHTSA and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) found that currently available products are limited in their effectiveness and are unreliable as a stand-alone preventative measure for addressing child heatstroke tragedies.