A tragedy and a near-tragedy on the other side of the country offer important reminders of a problem that recurs every summer: hot car deaths.
According to The New York Times twin one-year-olds died in the Bronx late last month after their father forgot to drop them off at day care. They were left in the backseat of his car while he worked an entire eight hour shift at a VA hospital. A few days later an off-duty firefighter in the neighboring New York City borough of Queens saved a four-year-old boy by smashing the window of a car in a shopping center parking lot.
According to the website Gothamist, the father in the latter incident later told police that he had only been inside the store for fifteen minutes. That highlights one of the key issues with hot car deaths – something that we all cannot be reminded about too many times: “A car can heat up 19 degrees in just 10 minutes. And cracking a window doesn’t help,” as the website SafeKids notes. Younger children, such as the twins in the Bronx, are at particular risk because “their bodies heat up three to five times faster than an adult’s.”
The Times notes that “an average of 38 children die of heatstroke every year.” Summer months are the most dangerous. Yet people also regularly forget that it does not have to be especially hot outside for the temperature inside a car to rise dramatically. We all know this. We have all opened the door of a parked car on a not-particularly-hot day only to be met by a blast of sauna-like air. Still, every summer, tragic stories like this appear in the media.
ORS 163.545 makes it a Class A misdemeanor here in Oregon to leave any child under age 10 “unattended in or at any place for such period of time as may be likely to endanger the health or welfare of such child.” Leaving a child unattended in a car clearly meets this definition. Importantly, Oregon law has, since 2017, also protected people rescuing a child from a hot car from civil or criminal liability, as noted in a recent article in the La Grande Observer.
As an Oregon attorney whose practice has long focused on injuries to children, it saddens me that I must return to this subject again and again. The fact that several dozen children suffer hot car deaths every year despite years of public education on the subject should make all of us think long and hard. Even the best parents can make tragic mistakes. I urge everyone to take a few minutes to read (or re-read) the tips on the SafeKids page linked below to see how easily avoidable these tragedies are.
The New York Times: ‘Oh Forgive Us!’: Heartbreak and Mourning for Twins Who Died in Hot Car
La Grande Observer: Beat the Heat