- On average, 37 children die each year after being left in a car
- Legislation, technologies are not enough, expert advises
(CNN) As of July 31, the number of children across the United States who have died of heatstroke when left in hot cars was at a record high.
This year, 29 children have died of heatstroke after being left in a vehicle. That's more than at this point in previous years, according to Jan Null, a certified consulting meteorologist with the Department of Meteorology & Climate Science at San Jose State University. And 11 of those deaths were reported in the past week alone.
This "is the highest we've ever had," said Null, who logs these and other statistics on noheatstroke.org.
The previous record as of July 31 was 28 deaths in 2010, he explained, "a year where we ended up with 49 deaths for the year."
Null began to track these sad occurrences in 2001, when local media asked him, after the death of a child in a car, how hot it could have gotten inside. Not knowing the answer, he said he'd look around and found nothing, so he decided to conduct his own research.
He put a remote thermometer in a vehicle to capture the internal temperature while an outside thermometer recorded the ambient temperature. (Null records temperatures in Fahrenheit for his website.)
"One of the really surprising things when I started looking at this is the amount of rise per time," Null said. "This is as if you had the air conditioner running, you've driven into a parking spot, parked the car, turned it off, closed the door -- the time starts. In the first 10 minutes, the average rise is 19 degrees."
This effect is almost identical if you start at 70 degrees or 90 degrees, Null said. If you start at 70, in 10 minutes, it will be 89°F. If you start at 90, in 10 minutes, it will be 109°F.
How Heat Kills Kids
The central nervous system is not fully developed in children, and this makes their bodies less able to cope with temperature changes, according to the Mayo Clinic. Children have difficulty remaining hydrated for this same reason. And a child's core body temperature can rise five times more quickly than that of an adult.
When body temperature rises, heatstroke may occur. Also referred to as hyperthermia and heat illness, it can cause alterations in consciousness and lead to permanent brain, heart and kidney damage. In a worst-case scenario, heatstroke places a person -- child or adult -- at risk of death.
On average, 37 children die each year after being left in a car, says Null, who counts 729 such deaths overall since 1998.
To end at least some of these unnecessary fatalities, cars may someday include a safety feature.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Al Franken introduced legislation Monday requiring all new passenger vehicles to be equipped with a child safety alert system. The technology alerts drivers if a child is left in the back seat once the car is turned off.
The Helping Overcome Trauma for Children Alone in Rear Seat Act (HOT CARS Act is intended to prevent heatstroke deaths when children are left alone in vehicles.