Mercury rising: Leaving children and pets in cars a recipe for tragedy

As summer swings into view and the lengthening days and higher sun push the mercury to brow-sweating levels outside, the AAA Mid-Atlantic auto club would like motorists to think about how hot it can get inside a car, according to spokeswoman Christine Delise.

All that summer sunshine can quickly turn a motor vehicle into a solar oven, even on a fairly mild day, Delise said, and when it comes to non-crash, vehicle-related fatalities for children under the age of 14, heatstroke is the number one cause.

“It seems like every year when we get into summer, we get a couple of stories about children being left alone in hot cars,” Delise said. “Children are small and their bodies overheat easily, making infants and children 3 years of age and younger at the greatest risk for heat-related illnesses.”

A recent survey by the Public Opinion Strategies of Washington polling group has drawn extra attention to the issue this year, according to Delise. Of 1,000 parents and caregivers surveyed, 14 percent admitted to leaving a child or toddler alone in a vehicle and six percent said they were comfortable leaving their child in a locked vehicle for more than 15 minutes.

“Unfortunately, many of these cases are accidental tragedies that can happen even to the most loving and conscientious parent,” Delise said. “This recent survey is particularly disturbing as it illustrates that many parents are doing this intentionally, as a matter of convenience and are failing to recognize the danger they are placing their child in.”

It doesn’t take long for a car to become dangerously hot for a child on a sunny day, even if the temperature is mild. A 2005 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Heat stress from enclosed vehicles,” found that on a 72 degree Fahrenheit day, a car’s interior can reach 90 degrees in just 10 minutes, breach 100 degrees in just more than 20 minutes and hit 117 degrees in an hour.

The study also found that cracking a car’s windows — 1.5 inches in this case — makes little difference: On average, they found a car’s interior would warm by 3.5 degrees every five minutes with windows up, and 3.1 degrees per five minutes with windows cracked.

Before doing the math to see if there is a safe amount of time to leave a child in the car given the day’s weather, there is something else to consider: Leaving a child under 8 years old unattended is illegal, according to Cpl. Jon Light of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office.

“Within the last year, there were two incidents that occurred in the county where deputies were called to check on vehicles with children locked inside, one in September of last year and then again in February,” Light said. “Fortunately these children were left for a short period of time, but in both of these situations the guardian was cited under the family law article for confinement of a juvenile in an enclosed structure or motor vehicle.”

Such citations are misdemeanor offices, according to Light, carrying a maximum fine of $500 and up to 30 days of jail time. However, there are more serious charges that can apply depending on the situation.

“There was a case in Anne Arundel County last in summer where a parent had left a child in a car for quite an extended period,” Light said. “In that case, they ended up charging the parent with child neglect and abuse.”

The dangers of heatstroke that apply to infants and children also apply to our animal companions, and pets are left alone in hot vehicles far more often than children, according to Nicky Ratliff, executive director of the Carroll County Humane Society.

“People are more inclined to leave animals in cars than their children. But whether it’s a furry child or a two-legged cute little kid, they are all helpless with being locked in the car,” Ratliff said. “Dogs can’t sweat, so they will pant and then they will use up the oxygen in the car pretty rapidly and that will make it even worse ... Spring summer and fall, you should really just leave your animals at home to be safe.”

Just as many loving parents may leave a child in a car unintentionally, Ratliff said that the irony is that she has never seen a pet suffer inside a hot car because the owner did not love the animal: Unwanted dogs are left at home.

“One of the things we here from people [about their dog] is, ‘Well, he wanted to go!’”, Ratliff said. “Well yes, and children want to play in the street. It doesn’t matter what the child or the dog wants to do. As adults, it’s up to us to make the right decisions for them.”

Failing to make the right decision for a pet can have legal consequences for the owner on top of the negative health consequences for the animal. Maryland state law prohibits the leaving of animals in a vehicle in conditions that can lead to harm, according to Ratliff, and animal control officers are authorized to get the animal out, one way or another.

“We have tools that open cars and it works on most,” she said. “If it doesn’t work on the car and nobody is there and the dog is in distress, you will be replacing your window.”

In addition to having to replace a window, violators can be fined $500 per incident, according to Ratliff, and in the case where an animal has died, charged with a felony and imprisoned for up to five years.

Legal consequences aside, Light said it’s best to reconsider the idea of there being any safe period to leave a child or animal alone in a vehicle.

“[It’s best] not to take the chance. It is certainly never worth the dangers that could be presented to a child or animal by leaving them unattended,” he said. “It’s much larger than the fines or the charges, these are lives that you’re talking about.”

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