Why you should never leave your children in cars

By Dr Raj Khillan

Even on mild days the temperature inside a parked car can be 20-30 degrees hotter than the temperature outside

A year ago to the month, a toddler was accidentally left in a car at Neutral Bay in Sydney. The boy was alone for up to three hours before police smashed the car window and pulled him out. He was suffering from dehydration. The boy’s father so sleep deprived he had left the child in the car.

Across Australia, there were reportedly 10 cases of children being trapped inside hot cars on the same day. Thousands of kids are left in hot cars every year, sometimes with tragic consequence.

NRMA attended 581 incidents where children were locked in cars and 437 where pets were trapped—in NSW and the ACT alone, in three months between October 2017 and January 2018.

Children can and do die in hot cars—and the risk is highest in summer. Even on mild days the temperature inside a parked car can be 20-30 degrees hotter than the temperature outside. When it’s 30 degrees outside, a child could be suffering in up to 60-degree heat. The risk of heatstroke and dehydration is very real.

The Never Leave Kids in Cars campaign, which began ten years ago, prompts parents to take their kids with them whenever they get out of the car, just as they do their everyday valuables, to avoid potentially tragic consequences.

Kidsafe Victoria implemented the ‘Do Not Leave Children In Cars’ campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of leaving children unattended in cars and reduce the number of incidents across the state.

A key feature of the campaign is Kidsafe Victoria’s ‘Do Not Leave Children Unattended in Cars’ signs, which are ideally suited for car parks at shopping/cafe strips, parks, gardens, shopping centres, entertainment venues, business premises, schools, early childhood centres, sporting facilities and aquatic centres.

As part of the campaign, Kidsafe Victoria has developed community awareness kits specifically for local government, early childhood services, shopping centres and hotels/gaming venues. The kits provide these organisations with the tools to raise awareness and reduce the number of children left unattended in car incidents in their local areas and in an ongoing capacity. The kits also provide organisations with an opportunity to work in partnership with Kidsafe Victoria.

Two years ago, Kidsafe teamed up with AAMI and celebrity chef Matt Moran to bring to life ‘The Unconventional Oven’. Moran prepared a meal for awaiting journalists, bloggers and members of the public interested in finding out about the ‘product launch’ of the unconventional oven. Moran revealed that he had in fact cooked the meal inside a parked car, which had been sitting out in the Bondi sun. The temperature inside the car was more than 75 degrees Celsius.

A parked car can become 20-30 degrees hotter than the outside temperature. Around 75% of the heating occurs in the first 5 minutes and 90% in the first 15 minutes. Leaving the window open has minimal effect on reducing the internal temperature of the car (only 1 degree Celsius when 1cm open).

The temperature and humidity inside the car begin to increase while the airflow decreases and the temperature increases inside the car. Children can begin to develop heat stress and dehydration. Children are more sensitive to heat than older children and adults. This can put them at greater risk of heat stroke and other health risks. Children are particularly at risk because they lose fluid quickly. Dehydrated children are at risk of suffering potentially life threatening heatstroke. If the child becomes distressed and tries to get out of their restraint, they could be at risk of strangulation on the harness.

Parents often leave kids in the car thinking that they will be back in ‘just a minute’. This often turns into 10-15 minutes which places children in extreme danger. Sometimes kids get locked in the car because they are playing with the car keys. It is important to call emergency services to get the child out of the car as quickly as possible.

In very sad events, usually due to change in routine, parents have forgotten their child in the back seat.

Dark-coloured cars may reach slightly higher temperatures than lighter-coloured cars. Large cars can heat up just as fast as small cars. The colour of interior trim has little effect on the speed that the temperature can increase inside a car.

If a child is locked in a car, call 000 and ask for police, who will get there as quickly as they can (and will break the window themselves) and call an ambulance. But if the child is clearly distressed, do not wait for help. Instead, break a window and remove the child from the vehicle until help arrives. If you break a window, and the child is simply asleep and it turns out not to be an emergency, it is possible that you could be required to pay for the window.

What does the law say?

Laws vary in each state and territory

In Queensland, the criminal code, section 364a, under the title “Leaving a child under 12 unattended”, states:

  1. A person who, having the lawful care or charge of a child under 12 years, leaves the child for an unreasonable time without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child during that time commits a misdemeanor. Maximum penalty—3 years’ imprisonment.
  2. Whether the time is unreasonable depends on all the relevant circumstances.

It’s been in Queensland’s criminal code for nearly a decade. Under the previous law parents could only be punished if their unattended child was injured or suffered neglect.

In Victoria you’ll find “offence to leave child unattended” under section 494 of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005.

It says a person who has the control or charge of a child must not leave the child without making reasonable provision for the child’s supervision and care for a time which is unreasonable having regard to all the circumstances of the case.

In NSW, according to Family and Community Services, there is no actual law that states at what age children can be left alone, but the law is clear about the responsibility of parents to look after their children.

However, anyone who leaves any child or young person in a motor vehicle without proper supervision—potentially or actually causing emotional or physical harm—is guilty of an offence.

It can be prevented by the Safe Practices;

  • If you have to leave the car, even to run a quick errand, take the children with you
  • Do not use the car as a substitute ‘baby-sitter’
  • To put in place a ‘look before you leave’ routine whenever you get out of the car and leave something important on the backseat that you need to take with you (e.g. your wallet).
Courtesy: Kidssafe Victoria, NR

The writer is is a Consultant Paediatrician, at Western Specialist Care Centre


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