Vehicular heatstroke

In the United States, since 1998, there have been 735 recorded deaths of children by vehicular heatstroke – a term used to describe the tragic death caused by a child being left trapped in a hot car. For the year 2017 thus far, there have been 35 recorded deaths.

In most cases (54%) the child was “forgotten” by a caregiver, or left playing unattended in a vehicle (28%). In an alarming number of cases (17%) the child was intentionally left in a vehicle by an adult. Nearly 75% of the children who perished in this manner were under 2 years old, nearly a third were less than a year old.

Hot car deaths of children are an entirely preventable tragedy which adversely affects the lives of family members and damages relationships among those affected directly and indirectly. It is entirely preventable because the major cause of it is the lapse of memory on the part of the guardian. It is a great tragedy because a helpless child is essentially abandoned by the very adult(s) on which it should depend upon for its safety and wellbeing.

On the average in the USA, there is a vehicular heatstroke death of a child every nine days. Because of its entirely preventable nature, this statistic becomes totally unacceptable and one which the authorities are fighting to eradicate.

Many persons may consider that hot car deaths are no more than a tragic accident, for which the parents and/or guardians/caregivers have already been punished because of the emotional suffering that they must have to endure, possibly for many, many years. This argument pointing to the emotional anguish that the responsible adult suffers must be true in almost all cases, but we know that even in accidents such as vehicular crashes, there is still room for the assignment of culpability.

Again, looking to the example of the USA, in July 2013, a young mother of four was sentenced to 10 years in prison after she unknowingly left her 4-month-old son in a car for 14 hours. The temperature inside the car rose to 125 degrees Fahrenheit (about 52 degrees Celsius) during this time, and the infant died after being hospitalized. is a website dedicated to child safety in and around vehicles by gathering and documenting related data and information, and they have published that in 695 heatstroke cases tracked between 1990 and 2014, 45% of the adults involved did not face criminal charges, and of those charged, 28% were convicted while 7% were not, with an outcome pending in the remaining cases.

These statistics suggest that there is much subjectivity and emotion surrounding this issue of vehicular heatstroke, particularly infants. It would seem that when a mother is involved in such an incident, especially given a mother’s perceived strong connection to a child in its formative years, an observer would be hard pressed not to view her as abdicating that special role and function she holds with respect to her child.

These cases would be a nightmare to police and/or to prosecute in any country, as emotions run rife when a tragedy involves a helpless child. Shock, anger, sadness, remorse, sympathy, revenge,  are just a few of the responses that are triggered in those closely involved in the incident whether as parents, guardians, caregivers, or the investigating police and social workers, or those in the justice system who must pronounce on guilt or innocence and pass judgment.

In Guyana, there have been very, very few reported instances of vehicular heatstroke deaths over the years, but the odd one which has occurred has had emotionally devastating consequences for the victims’ families, caregivers and indeed all concerned. Dealing with such an issue in its aftermath is a very divisive affair as most positions are taken based on deeply felt emotions, and most laws are outdated and ill-suited for dealing with this particular type of incident, even as the quantity of vehicles on our roadways have quadrupled over the years.

Consideration of the actions of parents, guardians, caregivers and others that result in harm coming to a child would mean a consideration of whether or not the child suffered from reckless endangerment. There are countless everyday situations that present possible danger to a child, but the adult in charge usually exercises care and caution in ensuring that no harm actually occurs. Simply walking on the road or crossing the street is a potentially dangerous situation.

However, reckless endangerment is considered a situation where someone’s actions “create a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person” and this is considered a crime according to United States law. In Guyana, there are laws governing the neglect of children and persons who are considered to be culpable in vehicular heatstroke incidents may be subjected to this piece of legislation.

But of even more pressing importance at this time, given the increasing numbers of Guyanese who now are acquiring their own vehicles, is the need to raise awareness of vehicular heatstroke or hot car incidents among the general public. Those who have suffered this tragic misfortune may also consider whether they can become spokespersons for this awareness effort, so as to put a human face on the tragedy.

As the old adage goes, prevention is better than cure.



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