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Child deaths in hot cars 'totally' preventable

/ Source: The Associated Press

It’s a scenario that’s tragically repeated dozens of times a year: A parent places a toddler in the back seat of a vehicle on a hot day and later becomes distracted, leaving the child inside to swelter and die.

Authorities in Payne County in north-central Oklahoma say that’s what happened last Sunday, when temperatures soared into the 90s and the father of 21-month-old Banyan Blaze Roberts forgot to take the sleeping boy out of a vehicle after returning from a family outing.

Banyan, whose core temperature rose to 107.9 degrees, later died in a hospital. A core temperature of 107 is considered lethal.

He was at least the fifth child to die across the nation this year after being left in a hot vehicle, said Jan Null, a San Francisco State University meteorology professor who tracks such deaths. On Friday, a 14-month-old boy in Little Rock, Ark., became another victim after his mother accidentally left him in her car for four hours.

Other cases occurred in South Carolina, Florida, Texas and Tennessee, and involved children ranging in age from 8 months to 3 years.

At least 31 such deaths have been recorded every year in the United States since 1998, with 42 each in 2003 and 2005, Null said. Banyan’s death is the eighth child hyperthermia fatality in Oklahoma during that span.

A study by the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center examined 171 child hyperthermia deaths from 1995 through 2002 and found that 39 percent were attributed to a caregiver’s forgetfulness, and that 27 percent were the result of unattended children playing in or around vehicles.

“Every single one of these deaths is totally preventable — if the car had been locked, if you hadn’t forgotten the child,” Null said.

Temperatures inside a vehicle can rise quickly — about 19 degrees in 10 minutes and 43 degrees in an hour — and the vehicle can “become an oven,” he said.

Even best parents make mistakes

Anara Guard, who led the study for the Massachusetts center, said parents and other adults are sometimes too comfortable in their vehicles.

“We need to change how we think about the car,” she said. “We need to regard it as a hazard, like we would with children around swimming pools.”

In Banyan’s case, his father, 29-year-old Justin Roberts, was taking care of him and two other children. Roberts simply became distracted, said Payne County Undersheriff Noel Bagwell, calling the case a “tragic accident.”

Null said technology is available to develop reminder alarms or sensors, but that two issues remain: Vehicle manufacturers would have to be persuaded they’re a worthwhile addition, and if an aftermarket item is marketed, parents must be persuaded to use it.

“They’re going to say, ’I’m not going to forget my child.’ So I think the best avenue right now is raising the level of awareness,” he said. “Even the best parents make these sorts of mistakes.”