Is It OK to Leave a Child or Pet in the Car?

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The recent death of a toddler in Georgia served as a tragic reminder that cars are dangerous machines, even when they aren’t moving.

Almost 40 children die each year from heatstroke in cars, and slightly more than half of those are caused by the caregiver simply “forgetting” that the child is in its car seat. It seems so simple — how could you forget there is a child in your car?

The human brain is hardwired with faults, as Gene Weingarten wrote in his Pulitzer-winning piece in the Washington Post:

The human brain is a magnificent but jury-rigged device in which newer and more sophisticated structures sit atop a junk heap of prototype brains still used by lower species. At the top of the device are the smartest and most nimble parts: the prefrontal cortex, which thinks and analyzes, and the hippocampus, which makes and holds on to our immediate memories. At the bottom is the basal ganglia, nearly identical to the brains of lizards, controlling voluntary but barely conscious actions.

In situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of auxiliary autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant but efficient basal ganglia is operating the car; that’s why you’ll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made or the scenery you saw.

It’s scary to think. If you’re capable of forgetting your cell phone at home or misplacing your keys, you are capable of forgetting your child in the car.

What can you do to prevent it?

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Get in the habit. Check the front and back of the car every time you get out. Don’t overlook a sleeping baby.

Force your brain to work. Do this as your failsafe. Place a colorful stuffed animal in the carseat when it is empty, and keep it in the front seat when the child is in the car. The stuffed animal will appear out of the ordinary, and it will send your prefrontal cortex into action. You’ll stop and recognize whether or not the child is with you.

Teamwork. Many hot car deaths are caused by a parent or caregiver taking the child on a routine trip when they normally don’t. If you are taking the child to daycare on the way to work when your spouse or partner normally does it, have them call you once you reach your destination and remind you to check the car seat. Make plans with your childcare provider to call you if your child doesn’t show up to daycare or school.

Is it OK to leave a child or pet in the car at all?

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It might seem tempting. You just need to run into the grocery store for an item or two, and it doesn’t seem worth it to pull the kiddo out of the car seat.

Can you just crack the window and run inside real quick?

No. Not at all. Don’t even think about it.

A car’s interior temperature can rise 19 degrees in 10 minutes after it is parked. That becomes 29 degrees after 20 minutes and can rise more than 50 degrees in an hour. Cracking the windows doesn’t actually help.

Children are unable to deal with the heat as well was we can. Their internal body temperatures rise about 3 to 5 times faster than adults.

The temperature in your car can reach 120 degrees in a matter of minutes. In cars with dark interiors, surface temperatures can easily reach 180 to 200 degrees. Heat stroke sets in at 104 degrees and can become fatal at 107.

All of this means that your child could be in danger before you even get to the checkout line.

This also applies to dogs and cats. They don’t sweat, so they can’t handle the heat as well as we can, and leaving them in the car puts them at serious risk for heat injury or death (as well as theft).

The best thing to do? Take Junior inside with you or drop Fido off at home first. The convenience of a quick trip to the store isn’t worth the very serious risk of killing your child or pet.

What to do if you see a child locked in a car

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As we know, a locked car can get dangerous quickly. Here’s what to do if you spot a child or pet alone in a car:

  • Make sure the child or animal is OK. If not call 911 immediately. For pets, some cities have specific animal control hotlines for hot car emergencies.
  • If the child is OK, attempt to locate its caregiver. Have the facility’s management attempt to page the parent over its PA system. If there is someone with you, have them stay with the child as you look.
  • If the child or animal is in distress or isn’t responsive, do what you can to get into the car. Break a window if necessary. Many states have “Good Samaritan” laws, which protect people from liability when helping someone during an emergency.
  • Get the child out of the car as quickly as possible and cool him or her off. Do not use an ice bath.

In the end, cars are just a way to get from one place to the next. They aren’t babysitters or play centers. With the right precautions, you can avoid a tragic accident, and by acting quickly, you can help a child or pet in need.