Twenty-three children died and many more were injured this summer after being left unattended in a hot car, according to the National Highway Safety Administration (NTSA). Sometimes these heat stroke deaths and injuries occur when a child gets into an unlocked vehicle to play unbeknownst to the parent. Other times (54% according to KidsandCars.org) a parent or caregiver who is not used to transporting a child as part of their daily routine inadvertently forgets a sleeping child in the back of the vehicle. It is every parent’s worst nightmare come true.
Whenever I hear about a story like this I shudder out of horror, but I also shudder because on some level I understand how it is possible. We have all driven on autopilot before. We have all been overly occupied with an impending meeting. When my first son was only an infant, his father and I switched off the drop-offs to daycare. One morning I was thinking about a presentation while driving to work. I got halfway there when I realized I forgot to drop the baby off at daycare. He was asleep in his car seat and I wasn’t focusing. I immediately turned around and cried out of frustration the whole way to drop him off. It was a momentary lapse and no one was hurt, but this moment of stupidity still haunts me. I think about it every time I learn about a story of a child death in a car. I like to think that I would have noticed. I would not have just run out of the car. I would not have gone through my entire day without remembering. But, how many of those 23 children’s parents thought the same thing?
In an effort to address these preventable tragedies, The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a joint letter last week to mobilize the network of Head Start and child care providers nationwide.
According to the letter, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called on the nation’s Head Start directors and child care providers to take advantage of the “Look Before You Lock” campaign materials by sharing them with staff, families, and other community members.
“Safety is our top priority for everyone on our roadways, but we have a special responsibility to protect our most vulnerable passengers,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “While parents and caregivers are the first line of defense, everyone has a role to play in preventing these needless tragedies.”
The campaign includes safety education and training for parents and caregivers, as well a cooperative pledge. The pledge asks families and providers to work together to inform each other if a child is expected to arrive at home or at daycare and does not.
As a parent, I see how this makes complete sense. But, as a child care provider speaking candidly, I am skeptical. I like to think that this simple pledge will make a difference, but I fear this will not be enough.
I have repeatedly made it known that I want parents to call or e-mail or even text me if their child is ill, has an appointment, or is simply staying home for the day. Many of my clients are great about letting me know their plans. Others, however, never inform me. Sometimes I call to check-up out of worry, but other times I am so consumed with what I am doing that I may not have the time to call or e-mail until naptime. And when I do call some parents seem annoyed by my checking-up on them and their child (not always the best incentive for calling).
But, perhaps with this pledge the result will be different. Perhaps when parents and providers both sign this document committing to call, everyone will do their part. Parents won’t think I am being intrusive for calling and they will understand that calling is a safety issue not an issue of courtesy.
I can’t help wondering though, if I sign this pledge will I be blamed in the event of a tragedy for not calling a parent to ask why his or her child did not make it to daycare as expected? Will I share the guilt for such a preventable tragedy? It is enough to keep me up at nights. But, maybe this is the motivation needed to ensure that everyone does their part. Maybe this fear and awareness is the key to saving lives. Maybe it’s time that more people step-up and make some effort to prevent these tragedies. What do you think? Will this pledge make a difference?
Here are some tips from the NHTSA and its safety partners to prevent heatstroke incidents:
• Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle – even if the windows are partially open or the engine is running and the air conditioning is on;
• Make a habit of looking in the vehicle – front and back – before locking the door and walking away;
• For caregivers transporting children by van or bus, check every seat to make sure no child is still in the vehicle before locking and leaving the vehicle;
• Ask the Head Start or child care provider to call if the child does not show up for care as expected;
• Do things that serve as a reminder a child is in the vehicle, such as placing a cell phone, purse or briefcase in the back seat to ensure no child is accidentally left in the vehicle, writing a note or using a stuffed animal placed in the driver’s view to indicate a child is in the car seat; and,
• Teach children a vehicle is not a play area and store keys out of a child’s reach.
To learn more about NHTSA’s “Where’s baby? Look before you lock.” campaign, visit www.SaferCar.gov/heatstroke.
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