Written by Claire Z. Cardona, Breaking News Producer
The weather may be cooling off, but it's still possible for children and pets to die from being left in a hot car. One Dallas legislator hopes to make it easier for people to intervene, and possibly save a life. Texas leads the nation in deaths of children in hot cars. Seven of the 34 hot car deaths this year occurred in Texas. That number is up from 24 last year, and 31 in 2014.
The latest incident happened Friday in Mississippi, according to noheastroke.org, which tracks those deaths. By removing the civil liability a person may face if they break a window, Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, hopes people will be more inclined to act quickly. Currently, there is no criminal penalty for breaking a window to save a child, but the car owner could sue claiming that he or she was gone for only just a minute. Texas law forbids a person from leaving a child in a car for longer than 5 minutes if the child is younger than 7 and left alone. Villalba's bill also would also make it a crime to leave a domesticated animal in the car. "We know these kind of measures won't end this problem, but we like to do whatever we can to give children and our furry family members more opportunities to escape," Villalba said. The bill would also raise the maximum penalty from a class C to up to a class A misdemeanor, which would allow for some prison time at a judge's discretion, he said. "If it's a situation where a mom goes into a Wal-Mart thinking, 'I'm only going to be in there 3 minutes,' but it takes 30 minutes ... that's clearly what we're trying to prevent, so that needs to be a much higher penalty than we currently have," he said.
It can happen to anyone
If the bill passes, Texas will join 10 other states including Florida and Kentucky with so-called good Samaritan laws that pertain to civil immunity for people who bust into cars to rescue an endangered child. Janette Fennell, president and founder of the advocacy group Kids and Cars, said with a law like Villalba's there comes a public education element. "It's very encouraging because so many times when people come across a child left in the car they literally do not know what to do," she said.
"Some people won't act because they're afraid of liability. With a bill like this it can help to kind of squelch that fear."
Fennell said people should call 911 before breaking a window. As it's written, the bill requires the person to notify 911 either before or immediately after entering the car. Close calls can be damaging, too. Two Garland parents almost lost their 3-year-old son when Eric Stuyvesant accidentally left the boy in the vehicle for more than an hour. Michael suffered six strokes, but survived and is recovering. The Stuyvesants have thrown their support behind a national bill by New York Rep. Peter King who introduced the Hot Cars Act of 2016 to Congress. The bill would create mandates requiring vehicle manufacturers to add a reminder to new vehicles for parents to check the back seat for children before leaving the car. General Motors has already added a "rear seat reminder" on the instrument panel of the 2017 Acadia and plans to add it to more vehicles.
'Leave your pet at home'
Maura Davies, vice president of communication for the SPCA of Texas, said the bill could save many animals. The state does not track the number of animals that die in hot cars, but a South Texas police officer was charged with cruelty to an animal after the June death of his police K-9 in a squad car. "As a mother and a pet lover, it would be wonderful to have a law that helps good Samaritans help those that can't otherwise help themselves," Davies said. Maine and Wisconsin are among the states with similar laws for pets, but there's also another solution, Davies said. "The best thing people can do is leave your pet at home," she said. "Especially in Texas, especially in the summer. Everybody wants to be in the air conditioner, that's the best place for people and pets."
Fennell said the worst mistake anyone can make is to think that it won't happen to them. Then people don't use little tips, such as "look before you lock," to help remind them. "People don't understand how the memory works, and because you do that so often it can fill in the blanks," she said. "If you don't know you left the child back there you, think they're at daycare." The 30th death, which happened Sept. 15 in Dayton, illustrates just that, she said. Thinking she had brought her 1-year-old boy to daycare, the mother went to work. At the end of the day, she headed back to the daycare to pick him up, but upon arriving discovered her son's lifeless body strapped into a rear-facing car seat where he'd been all day, KHOU-TV reported. In his obituary, the family said that memorial donations in Jack Kennemer's honor would go toward, among other things, child advocacy and education for the safety of kids, including to organizations such as KidsandCars.org.
Similar stories have played out across the state, in Lufkin, Houston, Melissa, Temple, Dallas, and Helotes. Though some children have been left intentionally while parents or guardians pop into stores, many times an incident occurs when the adults go about their day, going to work or to church, believing the child was safe elsewhere. The deaths aren't limited to the summer months. The first vehicular heatstroke death of the year occurred in January despite outside temperatures in the 50s. The 13-month-old was left in a car for several hours with the heater on and in direct sunlight. KXAS-TV (NBC5) contributed to this report.
Temperatures inside a vehicle can rise more than 20 degrees in 10 minutes, even when it's not sweltering outside, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Leaving the windows partially rolled down does not help.
- Always check the backseat of your vehicle before walking away -- "Look before you lock"
- Find ways to remind yourself to get children out of the car, like leaving a cellphone or purse in the back seat.
- If a child is missing, open the doors and trunks to every vehicle in the area.
- Call 911 if you see a child alone in a car.
- Teach children not to play in vehicles and make sure the keys are out of reach when not being used.
SOURCE: Texas Department of Public Safety
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