Jim Gilbert, Transportation Safety Advisor                                                                                                        A-State Childhood Services


[This safety advisory was issued June, 2015.  I don’t think we can emphasize this critical subject enough.  Now that the summer is with us, again remember child safety alarms, proper use of roster, and following unloading procedures’ work hand-in-hand to help avoid leaving a child behind in a vehicle. ]  


“NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND” is a banner we are most accustomed to hearing associated with an academic achievement program.  But in the childcare profession, this banner should resonate the safety message about never leaving a child in a vehicle.   Regardless of all the efforts put forth to prevent this careless and inexcusable tragic event, it continues to happen.   Such events in recent weeks have not resulted in any harm to a child, but the potential was there.  As we move into the summer months with temperatures in the 90s, and some days exceeding the 100 degree mark, I’m afraid such events could have a very tragic outcome.


Heatstroke deaths in motor vehicles have claimed the lives of 636 children during the past 16 years (1998-2014).   Over half (338) of these were accidentally forgotten by a parent or caregiver.   Childcare personnel were responsible for 36 such accidental deaths – a 1 in 10 ratio.   This fact alone should be enough to pull out every stop at raising awareness amount state oversight personnel, childcare staff and parents/guardians.   Is it preventable – Absolutely!!  Is it ever excusable – Absolutely not!!


It is important to understand what actually happens inside a vehicle that is exposed to the sun.  The sun’s shortwave radiation passes through the windows of a vehicle and warms the objects inside (dashboard, steering wheel, child seat, etc.).  Heat from these objects can reach 180 to 200 degrees, which warms the air inside.  For example — on an 80 degree day, a vehicle’s inside temperature can exceed 120 degrees in an hour or less.  Imagine how fast that heat will rise on a hot summer day in Arkansas.  Children have died from heatstroke in cars on days with outside temperature as low as 60 degrees.


What happens when a child is left in this hot environment?  Heatstroke (hyperthermia) will occur.  Medically speaking, heatstroke is when a person’s temperature exceeds 104 degrees and their thermoregulatory mechanism is overwhelmed.  When a person’s body temperature of 107 degrees or greater is reached, cells are damaged and internal organs begin to shut down.  Children’s thermoregulatory system are not as efficient as an adult’s and their body temperatures warm at a rate 3 to 5 times faster than adults’.


The most dangerous mistake a child care employee can make is to think leaving a child alone in a vehicle could never happen to them.  It can happen to anyone!  And when it does, everyone responsible for that child’s safety is at fault.  Child care regulations direct the use of rosters, child passenger alarms, unloading procedures, and training to help prevent leaving a child behind on a vehicle.  However, it still happens.  In all cases, it is human failure stemming from taking short cuts, not following policy, and lack of attention and management oversight.  Most tragedies occur during busy times, periods of crisis, holidays, understaffing situations and changes in routine.


Preventing these tragedies is a combination of developing sound operational policy and ongoing education.  Every childcare entity that transports children should have a written policy directing the specific steps to be taken by its staff to ensure no child is left on a vehicle.  The policy should also set forth the personnel actions that will be taken if the policy is not followed.  Each employee hired should read, understand, and sign the policy – even if they are not involved in the actual transportation of children.  They most certainly will be involved in accountability for children being transitioned from the vehicle to the classroom.  The use of child safety alarms, proper utilization of trip rosters, and following operational procedures all work together to avoid leaving a child onboard a vehicle.


The driver of the vehicle shoulders the primary responsibility but is not alone in the accountability.  The center’s director, transportation aides, and classroom teachers all play a role in the process and in the responsibility.   The Safety Advisories published in January and March addressed child safety alarms and trip rosters.  Properly installed and utilized safety alarms along with detailed, concise rosters used for each trip are critical tools.   But the most critical factors in this process are education and training.  Some people want to take shortcuts or get distracted and at times it appears they are “just lazy”.  The process of unloading children from a vehicle requires a certain level of redundancy, and this is a good thing.  However, redundancy can bore people and they become lax in their tasks.  Ongoing training and oversight is necessary to reinforce that the correct process is followed.  For those smaller vehicles not required to have safety alarms, polices and procedures need to stress safety checks by more than one person.


Any child left on a vehicle is ultimately the responsibility and liability of the director and/or owner.  Therefore, hiring and training the right employees who are given this shared responsibility is theirs as well.  When an employee fails and a child is left on a vehicle, management also fails.  Arkansas is one of the 30 remaining states without laws specifically against leaving a child unattended in a vehicle.  An Associated Press study in 2005 found that a “Wide disparity exists in sentences for leaving kids to die in hot cars”.  In the cases of paid caregivers (childcare works, babysitters), 84% were charged and 96% were convicted.


Earlier this month, a daycare center in Atlanta was closed down by the state because they left a child in a locked van for two hours.   The child was found uninjured, but the van driver was still arrested on child cruelty charges and jailed.  The center is appealing their closure.  In Arkansas, leaving a child in a vehicle seems to have little or no consequences for the childcare entity unless the act results in some harm or a fatality.   Law enforcement and prosecutors, in conjunction with the State, need to consider if specific laws and regulations should be directed toward commercial child care operators and their staff who endanger the welfare of a child by leaving them in a vehicle.












Source:  Kids and Cars ; San Francisco State University, Department of Geosciences ;  Safe Kids USA