Since the mid-1990s, the number of children who died of heat exhaustion while left inside vehicles has risen dramatically, totaling around 340 in the past 10 years. One reason was a change parent-drivers made to protect their kids after juvenile air-bag deaths peaked in 1995 — they put them in the back seat, where they are more easily forgotten.
"They belong back there because they are safest. But it's a bit of out of sight, out of mind," president and founder of the nonprofit group Kids and Cars, Janette Fennell, told The Early Show co-anchor Julie Chen.
The Associated Press conducted study of children who died after being trapped inside hot cars over the past 10 years and analyzed 339 fatalities involving more than 350 responsible parties. July is by far the deadliest month, accounting for nearly a quarter of the total.
A relatively small number of cases — about 7 percent — involved drugs or alcohol. In a few instances, the responsible parties had a history of abusing or neglecting children. Still others were single parents unable to find or afford day care.
Many cases involved what might be called community pillars: dentists and nurses; ministers and college professors; a concert violinist; a member of a county social services board; a NASA engineer. And it is undisputed that none — or almost none — intended to harm these children.
The Associated Press study also found that there is a difference in treatment of adults who have left their children in cars. Baby-sitters are more likely than parents to be charged and convicted than parents are. Mothers are 26 percent more likely than fathers to do time for their conviction. Of parents who were prosecuted for leaving a child behind in a car, 59 percent of women were jailed while 47 percent of men were jailed. Meanwhile, fathers who were prosecuted got a three-year sentence. Mothers got a five-year sentence. Charges are filed in half of all cases.
"I think it really must say that our society holds moms more accountable for taking care of the children than the father," Fennell said. "You hear so many times, fathers are baby-sitting. You know, and moms really are the ones in charge of the children. But that was a bit of a surprise, when you really, you know, crunch the data and look at it. But that's what the figure showed."
The AP's analysis was based largely on a database of fatal hyperthermia cases compiled by Fennell's organization. The AP contacted medical examiner's offices in several states where this most often occurs, and the group's numbers coincided almost exactly with recorded hyperthermia deaths.
Some of these children crawled into cars or trunks on their own, but most were left to die by a caregiver. Most often, it was a parent who simply forgot the child was inside.
Texas leads the nation with at least 41 deaths, followed by Florida with 37, California with 31, North Carolina and Arizona with 14 apiece, and Tennessee with 13. There were deaths recorded in 44 states — most in the Sun Belt, but many in places not known for hot weather.
Fennell said the deaths most often result from parents changing their routines and forgetting what they are doing because they are rushed. She said parents have to find ways to remind themselves about what they are doing.
"It's as simple as possibly putting a teddy bear in the child's car seat every time you put the child in the car seat, go ahead and put that teddy bear up front in the passenger seat so you have that cue to remember," she said. "Or we would really like to get people in the habit of always checking the backseat when they arrive at their destination. You know, put your — your employee I.D. or your cell phone or something that will remind you every time you arrive at your location to open that back door to check and make sure no one's been left behind.
"And a really important thing that — we just had a situation where a baby died in San Francisco — is if you have an iron-clad policy with your child-care provider that if my child doesn't show up at the time you're expecting them, here is every number conceivable to contact me and make sure the baby is OK."