By ccuWeather staff writer
With fewer people driving due to COVID-19, hot car deaths have been down this year. Child safety groups still caution parents not to let their guard down.
The father of two children who died in a hot truck over the weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has been released from custody after investigators discovered new evidence about how the children gained access to the vehicle, according to ABC 8 in Tulsa.
Over the weekend, Tulsa police arrested 31-year-old Dustin Dennis on two counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of his 4-year-old daughter, Tegan Dennis, and 3-year-old son, Ryan Dennis. Dennis had reportedly told detectives that he had fallen asleep for about five hours and could not locate the children after waking up following a trip to a nearby convenience store. Police initially said a neighbor’s surveillance footage showed Dennis locking his vehicle and going into the home without the children, according to ABC 8.
Tegan and Ryan Dennis. (Photo/Chantiel Keyes)
However, additional surveillance video obtained by the Tulsa Police Department from a neighbor’s property showed that the children had managed to climb into the truck on their own. Dennis was released on Monday and no formal charges have been filed, ABC 8 reported.
Investigators brought the new evidence to the Tulsa District Attorney’s Office which released the following statement obtained by ABC 8 on Monday:
“Today investigators with the Tulsa Police Department brought to the attention of the District Attorney’s Office additional information they were able to develop in the matter of the deaths of Tegan and Ryan Dennis. Detectives within the Child Crisis Unit were concerned about conflicting information as it related to the initially reported facts. Video surveillance footage from a neighbor’s home confirmed that the children managed to get into the truck and tragically never got out. Based upon that newly discovered evidence the detectives immediately reported it to our office. We then presented that information to the judge who initially set bond. Mr. Dennis was authorized for release on a personal recognizance bond.”
The high temperature on Saturday in Tulsa was 94 degrees Fahrenheit, well above the historical average of 87 degrees for June 13 in the city.
The nationwide death toll for pediatric hot car deaths stands at four so far in 2020, according to KidsandCars.org, a national non-profit that focuses on child safety.
That number is below average for this time of year and the COVID-19 pandemic is a big factor, according to multiple child safety advocates AccuWeather spoke with last week.
Yet, the tragedy in Oklahoma last weekend was one that experts have been warning about. Even though people are spending more time at home during the pandemic and less time on the roads, kids precisely in the age range of Tegan and Ryan Dennis are old enough to gain access to a car on their own if they slip out of the supervision of a parent or caretaker, experts say.
“We absolutely believe that COVID has had a major impact on the lower number of hot car deaths this year. Our big concern is that as families begin to go back to work, that the changes in routine could pose an increased risk for hot car deaths,” Amber Rollins, the director of Kids and Cars, told AccuWeather in an interview last week. “Additionally, with children being home more often, we are concerned that there could be an increased risk for children becoming trapped inside hot cars and other home accidental injuries.”
An examination of the more than 850 vehicular heatstroke deaths in children from 1998 to 2019 by NoHeatStroke.org, found that about 25 percent of the cases were the result of children gaining access to the car on their own. Most often, children are left in a car unknowingly; this accounts for about 54 percent of cases reported, according to No Heat Stroke, a website founded and run by Jan Null, an adjunct professor of meteorology at San Jose State University.
The first child heatstroke death in a car this year occurred in April in Tomball, Texas, when a 4-year-old boy gained access to a parked car and was unable to escape.
Rollins told AccuWeather that by the end of May, typically there are an average of seven vehicular heatstroke deaths, and 15 by the conclusion of June. Fifty-four hot car deaths were reported across the country in 2018, a record, according to Kids and Cars. In 2019, that record was nearly broken when 53 deaths were counted.
Experts say it’s important to instruct children not to play around cars and always check the backseat before exiting the vehicle. Additionally, it’s recommended to hide car keys in a place children can’t find them and make sure car doors are always locked.
The summer brings the highest number of fatalities, according to data compiled by Null. July is the deadliest month of the year, followed by August and June. It’s this deadly time of year that has advocates like Rollins urging people to be extra careful.
“We're moving into the days of summer. The temperatures outside are rising and with everybody's routine shifting and people getting back to work, these really are the perfect circumstances for a tragedy like this to happen. So, you know, it's really important for parents to be extra vigilant,” Rollins said.