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How Can Kids Still Be Dying in Hot Cars?

Kids are still dying in hot cars in alarming numbers. And one professor thinks he knows why.

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Every time a child dies in a hot car incident, I find myself thinking: Why? How? Well, a meteorologist and professor at San Jose State University named Jan Null thinks he knows the answer.

First, consider that according to The Washington Post, a heartbreaking 682 children have died in hot cars in the past 15 years; half were under the age of 2, and perhaps sleeping, or unable to speak up about being left behind. But Null says regardless of age, "Every one of these [deaths] can be prevented." Of course. So why are they still happening?

You would think far fewer of these grave tragedies would in fact be taking place, given that stories of vehicular heatstroke often make national headlines. And Null says that has helped a bit. But in the wake of two kids dying in hot cars this past weekend —a 4-year-old in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and a 3-year-old in Dallas, Texas—and the sobering fact that 21 kids have died in hot cars so far this year, Null is speaking out in the hopes that more can be done.

One way to force change is to get more laws passed in more states that make it illegal to leave a child alone in a vehicle. "There's only 20 states that have laws against leaving a child unattended in a car," Null says.

But here's what's truly troubling: Before the late 90s, only about 12 kids died in hot cars annually. And although one would think with advances in safety technology we'd see fewer hot car deaths, the exact opposite is happening. According to Null, the inclusion of air bags in front seats (so that children cannot sit up front safely) and the current recommendation that children sit in rear-facing car seats until age 2 are two factors behind the upward trend.

In other words, Null says parents are forgetting their kids in the car, and the data supports that theory. "A whole range of people can get distracted and leave their child in the car. It can happen to anybody," he says, adding a car can heat up surprisingly fast, and that death can occur in as quickly as 20 minutes. Twenty minutes!

"[The car] is basically a greenhouse, and it's a very effective greenhouse," Null explains, adding that kids' bodies tend to heat up faster than adults'.

Null cautions parents that even on moderately hot days, a car can heat up enough to cause death if a child is left inside. In fact, the temperature inside a vehicle can rise to 40 degrees hotter than the air temperature outside, and even leaving a window cracked wouldn't help in a significant way.

The takeaway: Never, ever, ever, ever leave your child in the car, even for a few minutes, even on days when it isn't that hot out. It just isn't worth it. And do whatever it takes to remember to exit your vehicle with all the kids you brought with you: friends of your kids, anyone you might be babysitting, a neighbor, new baby, and so on. So if that means leaving your purse in the back seat, or setting an alarm on your phone, do it!

It's also worth mentioning that some car companies are working to develop features that will help remind parents to take their kids out of the car, such as GMC. Their 2017 Acadia will come equipped with a Rear Seat Reminder option.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.