Timely reminder: Don’t leave kids or dogs in hot car

Melissa Preddy
The Detroit News

That lady sheepishly trotting around the local DIY store the other day, Chihuahua in tow, may have been me.

If you frequently have kids, animals or people with mobility issues on board, be aware that it doesn’t have to be a blazing 90-degree day for an unattended person or animal to quickly succumb.

Not because I couldn’t bear to be parted from little Damien, as he’s sometimes known, but because it was a bright 56 degrees outdoors. The hardware store was a temptingly mere stone’s throw from the veterinarian’s office where we had gone for a nail trim — but despite the cool outdoor temperature, I knew even a 10-minute dash with doggy sealed in the car was more of a chance than I cared to take.

If you frequently have kids, animals or people with mobility issues on board, be aware that it doesn’t have to be a blazing 90-degree day for an unattended person or animal to quickly succumb.

Beaming through the car’s window glass, the sun’s radiation heats up the surfaces and air inside the vehicle — but the air cannot escape back through the glass, so the interior of the vehicle gets far hotter than the outside air, fast. If it’s 70 degrees outdoors, the car’s interior will rise to 104 degrees within 30 minutes, according to the website Heatkills.org — and leaving windows cracked doesn’t alleviate the danger.

“We have a case where the outdoor temperature was 52 degrees, and the child died. It’s that greenhouse effect,” said Janette Fennell, founder and director of the safety advocacy group KidsAndCars.org, which, among other endeavors, promotes legislation and technology to prevent auto-related heatstroke.

Despite vigorous awareness campaigns and tragic news reports, about 37 children per year — one every nine days — still die from being in hot cars. No agency tracks pet deaths but anecdotal reports point to much animal suffering in these circumstances, too.

“Already in 2017, there have been six child fatalities so far — and it’s not even summer,” Fennell said. Nearly 90 percent of the children who die are age 3 or under, and of those, one-third are under age 1. Forgetful-parent cases comprise most of the fatalities, but some arise from parents knowingly leaving kids behind in cars — to shop, gamble, watch a movie — and some from kids at play locking themselves into vehicles.

“Kids’ respiratory systems are not as developed, so they heat up three to five times faster than adults do,” said Fennell. “It doesn’t take long.”

In Michigan, the law prohibits leaving children under 6 unattended in a car if the circumstances pose “an unreasonable risk of harm or injury to the child.” But the state has no law that forbids leaving animals unattended in cars. Nor, Fennell noted, does any Michigan law protect passers-by from being charged if they break into a vehicle to rescue a suffering occupant — human or animal.

Other states offer more assertive protection on both sides of the issue. A national list of child-related laws is available at KidsAndCars.org, while laws related to animals are compiled on the website of Michigan State University’s Animal Legal & Historical Center, at www.animallaw.info.

I don’t believe the fear of prosecution would deter me from breaking a stranger’s window if I felt it were a life-and-death situation. Just try sitting in your car for a while with the windows rolled up — or Google for the harrowing YouTube video by veterinarian Ernie Ward, who sat in a hot car for half an hour to show what it’s like for a trapped animal.

“I know what is going on and I am in control,” he says, visibly sweltering as he speaks to the camera. “I can’t imagine how helpless, and frightening, it would be for a dog … not knowing when you are going to come and slowly but surely having the energy and the life just burnt out of them.”

It’s not a risk worth taking for a shopping trip — and I’m very grateful to my area merchants and big-box stores that do permit leashed pets in with errand-runners.

The issue of toddlers and babies is more complex — a perfect storm of distraction, sleep deprivation, our brain’s auto-pilot function and other factors, Fennell says, that let even the most devoted parents slip up that one fateful time.

She is a longtime advocate for more built-in safety measures to be offered by automakers, and also tests the various products and gadgets on the market. A recent one that impresses is the SensorSafe technology by Evenflo; it plugs into the vehicle’s On-board Diagnostics (OBD) port and emits a chime if you exit the vehicle with the device still enabled, much like headlights-on reminder chimes.

Other tips and resources, including printable posters and infographics, are available at kidsandcars.org and at www.nhtsa.gov (National Highway Transportation Safety Administration), among others. Animal welfare information and tips to avoid pet deaths are at www.heatkills.org, www.peta.org and www.aldf.org (Animal Legal Defense Fund).

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via melissa@melissapreddy.com.