by Cedric Hughes, Barrister & Solicitor with regular weekly contributions from Leslie McGuffin, LL.B.   

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Parked Cars, Summer Temperatures and Tragedy

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Florida, 1998. On a hot June day, a mother and her children were at their backyard pool. The 2-year-old daughter wandered off and climbed in the open door of their minivan parked in the driveway. The door slid shut behind her. She was found within 15 minutes.

California, 2003. On a July morning in Lancaster, a high desert town 115 kilometers north of Los Angeles, a daycare centre director left two boys whom she was fostering aged three and five in her SUV. Afternoon temperatures reached 38C. The boys were found five hours later.

Montreal, 2003. On a July morning, a father, after altering his normal morning routine from first dropping off his 23-month-old daughter at daycare, parked his car and went to work. All day, the child sat strapped in her baby seat in the closed-up car. The outdoor temperature reached 27C. The father returned in the afternoon, found his daughter and took her directly to the Verdun Hospital.

Vancouver, 2002. In late June, an early shopper parked her SUV in the shade in the parking lot of a big-box store, partially rolled down all of her windows and locked all the doors. Her three-year-old standard poodle was in the car. When she returned 15 minutes later, she found the following note: “FYI –The interior of a vehicle can heat up to 50C-55C in less than an hour. Even vehicles parked in the shade in warm weather can pass 38C in just a matter of minutes. Animals can quickly suffer brain damage or die from heatstroke or suffocation when trapped in high temperatures. Don’t leave your dog in the car."

Only the last of these true stories has a non-tragic ending.

Kids And Cars, (www.kidsandcars.org) a nonprofit organization promoting child safety reports that children unattended in vehicles during hot weather account for 36.7 percent of non-traffic vehicle-related fatalities in the United States. It further reports that since 1996, 175 children have died from being left in hot vehicles, an average of 25 children per year. Although there are no such statistics for animals, the American Veterinary Medical Association (www.avma.org) reports that some of the worst summer tragedies involve pets that are left in vehicles in the sun with the windows partially or completely rolled up.

Parked vehicles get hot very quickly. The statistics from various sources on how hot and how quickly are somewhat inconsistent: “at 23C outside, an SUV can heat up to 38C degrees in 10 minutes, to 49C in just 30 minutes;" “at 32C outside, the vehicle can heat up to 71C within just a few minutes;" “at 34C with a window down 1 inch, the temperature inside a car may reach 52C in just 20 minutes and approximately 60C in 40 minutes." But quibbling about statistical inconsistencies is beside the point. Children, vulnerable adults and pets should never be left unattended in cars.

The danger stems from the relative inability of babies, young children and pets to dissipate heat buildup in their bodies. The body’s ability to regulate its temperature is overwhelmed by the heat causing loss of circulation to the vital organs. This condition, called heatstroke, can be fatal.

In summer temperatures especially, the following precautions are recommended:

  • Do not permit children to play in or around cars.
  • Keep cars locked at all times, even in the garage or driveway.
  • Keep the car trunk locked at all times. Vehicle trunks are particularly hazardous. Children can enter but can’t get out. Consider retrofitting your car with an inside trunk release. Keep rear fold-down seats upright to prevent children from getting into the trunk from inside the car.
  • Put your car keys out of children’s reach and sight.
  • Be wary of child-resistant locks; teach older children how to disable the driver’s door lock if they unintentionally become entrapped.
  • Use a light covering to shade the seat of a parked car and consider using windshield shades.
  • Check the temperature of car seat surfaces and seatbelt buckles before restraining children in a hot car.
  • Never leave a child unattended in a car—even with the windows down—even if you are just dashing in for a quick errand. Your car is not a babysitter.
  • At the end of your drive, always check that every baby seat is empty, that every child and pet passenger has left your car. One way to ensure that you always check the backseat is to make a habit of stowing your purse, or briefcase in the back seat.

A child who has been locked inside a hot car should be taken out immediately. Treat any symptoms— dizziness, "goose bumps," nausea, headache, weakness in legs, lack of coordination, rapid pulse, heavy sweating and muscle cramps—as signs of heat stroke. Because the brain is the most sensitive organ to the body's internal temperature, another symptom is the child’s mental condition. Confusion, disruptive behaviour, and unconsciousness indicate a life threatening condition. Wash the child’s whole body with cool water, give water to drink and take him or her to hospital immediately.

If a very young child is locked in with the keys, dial 911 and tell the operator that a young child is locked in a car that you can’t open. Opening your car will be treated as a top priority emergency call.

For pets left in hot cars, the risk of fatal heat stoke is high. Heat stroke symptoms in animals include rapid, harsh panting, very red mucous membranes and tongue, excessive drooling, unsteadiness, and vomiting. If you suspect that your pet is suffering from heatstroke, place it in a cool place and take immediate action to cool its whole body. Offer water, but do not force it to drink. Throat swelling can prevent swallowing. Once you’ve started this process, call your veterinarian. If you see an animal in a locked vehicle showing any signs of heat stress, call the SPCA immediately.

Car manufacturers are working on developing technological solutions to rapid heat buildup in motor vehicles. In the meantime, be aware of the problem and take the recommended precautions.
Cedric Hughes of Hughes and Company Law Corporation with contributions from Leslie McGuffin, LL.

Cedric Hughes

huges & company law corporation vancouver


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