Several seconds of silence overcame Janette Fennell when asked about the nation’s latest hot car death involving a child earlier this week.
A 2-year-old girl was found unresponsive after being left in a car for about 14 hours outside her parents’ home Tuesday in Prosperity, Florida, authorities said.
Deputies reportedly noticed that the girl was hot to the touch. Paramedics said the toddler’s temperature was 107 degrees. Her parents now face charges including child neglect and possessing methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.
The tragedy was already the fourth hot car death in the U.S. this year.
“That’s four too many,” Fennell, the founder and president of Kids and Car Safety, an advocacy group told USA TODAY Friday. “We’re not even in peak season yet.”
With warm weather starting to heat up across the U.S., Kids and Safety has released three public service videos on what to do if you see a child alone in a vehicle, what happens when a child becomes trapped in a hot car and how not to leave kids in a hot car. Each video depicts scenarios of what could happen if proper precautions are not taken and tips on how to potentially prevent a hot car death.
“The biggest takeaway is to never leave your children alone in a vehicle,” Fennell said. “But we all know, it’s not that easy.”
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2023’s hot car death total is on pace with 2022’s tally
With four hot car deaths in the U.S. this year, the U.S. is currently on pace with last year’s reported total of 36, Fennell said. Spikes in hot car deaths usually occur during the hot summer months.
According to Kids and Car Safety, three other hot-car deaths this year happened in Atmore, Alabama on Feb. 27, Port St. Lucie, Florida on March 6, the second in that state in 2023, and in Spring Valley, New York on May 9. The organization said all involved children between 1 and 2 years old and all are believed to have been left in cars unintentionally.
Overall, Florida is second in the nation behind Texas for having hot-car deaths involving children, Fennell said. Florida has had at least 111 child hot car deaths between 1990-2022, Fennell added. Texas has had 146 such deaths during that same time period, according to the organization.
More than 1,054 children have died mostly due to heatstrokes in hot vehicles and at least another 7,300 survived with varying types and severities of injuries since 1990, the year Kids and Car Safety began collecting such information, Fennell said.
“Sometimes, it’s not if, it’s just a matter of when,” Fennell said. “The real concentrated months are from May up to as far as September.”
While last year’s total of 36 kids who died from hot cars is an increase from the COVID-19 pandemic years of 23 deaths in 2021 and 20 deaths in 2020, they are less than the 2019 and 2018 figures as a combined 107 children died from being in hot cars, Fennell said.
“We average about 38 to 39 hot car deaths a year based on the historical data we have,” Fennell said. About 88% of all hot car deaths happen to kids ages 3 or younger, she added.
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‘It can absolutely happen to anyone’
Among the biggest perceptions about hot car deaths is that many people don’t think it could happen to them, Fennell said.
“It can happen that quickly, to a good person or a bad person, there are too many examples to count,” Fennell said. “That’s our biggest challenge, that it can absolutely happen to anyone.”
Many parents or others who leave kids in hot cars and die aren’t criminally charged mostly due to a lack of criminal or malicious intent, Fennell said. She said two main ways kids die in hot cars are because kids are unknowingly or accidentally left inside and kids might get into vehicles on their without their parents or other adults knowing.
Of the 170 deaths in the past five years, Kids and Cars have only been able to confirm 19 convictions, Amber Rollins, a spokeswoman for Kids and Car Safety told USA TODAY earlier this week.
“But even if they aren’t convicted, it still ruins their lives, reputations, careers, friendships, etcetera,” Rollins said. “The ripple effect is hard to quantify.”
Legislation is hopefully on the way to help prevent hot car deaths
Help might be on the way, however, in the form of federal legislation.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021, requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to finalize a rule by November mandating that new vehicles be equipped with a system to alert drivers to check rear-designated seats for children when the engine is shut off.
But Fennell said she and other advocates aren’t so sure the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will meet its deadline. She has urged Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to quickly advance the “hot cars” provision in the infrastructure law.
Fennell said that the law includes a provision that addresses hot car tragedies by requiring an “audio and visual reminder alert to check the back seat” in new passenger vehicles. But Fennell said the provision does not specify the requirement for the system to detect a child alone in a vehicle.
Without detection, Fennell said a system will be inadequate. She said that reminder alert alone “falls short” of what’s necessary to prevent hot car deaths and other injuries, “creating a false sense of security” for families.
Fennell said the current cost for rear-seat detection is around $50.
“Every day this effective technology is not included in our vehicles, we are failing our children and their loved ones,” Fennell said. “We’ve got to get this technology in vehicles to give us, our children, a chance.”
Last year, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an industry group representing about 40 automakers and suppliers said that more than 150 vehicle models now have a rear seat reminder system as standard or optional equipment. The equipment can include either an end-of-trip reminder or occupant sensing.
“It needs to be in all vehicles,” Fennell said.
For its part, the alliance has said participating manufacturers are committed to installing these rear seat reminder systems as standard equipment beginning either by September 1, 2024 or for the model year 2025 vehicles.
Another key tip to possibly prevent hot car deaths
Besides never leaving kids in vehicles by themselves, Rollins told USA TODAY that another key tip for parents and others is placing some visual objects in the front seat reminding them that a young child is in the back seat.
“Put the diaper bag in the front seat. Even better, parents can keep a stuffed animal in the back seat and every time they put their child in the back, they can bring the stuffed animal to the front,” Rollins said. “Do it every time and there’s much less chance that this could happen to you.”
Contributing: Amanda Lee Myers, USA TODAY