Motor vehicles are dangerous places for kids, even when vehicles are not on the road. Children are injured or killed in and around vehicles each year. All are preventable. Parents and caregivers should know the risks and safety steps.
In 2007, about 2,000 children were injured by vehicles that backed over them and 99 children died, according to NHTSA's Not-in-Traffic Surveillance system. Advocacy groups tracking the issue found similar numbers in previous years. Even with sensory systems such as rearview cameras or beeping object detection devices, researchers found half of drivers still hit objects behind them. Minivans, SUVs and trucks can have the biggest blind zones behind them, with the longest at nearly 70 feet. See how 62 children can fit in a vehicle blind zone.
Blind zones also exist in front of vehicles where drivers cannot see small children, and injuries and deaths happen from vehicles pulling forward and hitting children too.
- Walk 360° around your vehicle every time before driving.
- Make sure children are in the house. Young kids often run outside suddenly and unseen to say "bye bye" to their family.
- Teach your children to never play in or around vehicles, and to never play or stand in the driveway.
- Consider installing devices such as rearview cameras and sensors to reduce your blind zone. They are not failsafe, so should not be used as a replacement to the 360° walk around.
- Be especially vigilant during hectic times, schedule changes, family gatherings and holidays. These busy times are often when overlooked children are injured or killed.
On average, between 31-43 children a year die in hot vehicles. A 2005 study found that over 90 percent of children were forgotten by relatives, most often by parents. It can and does happen to people who think they would never forget their child. Another 18 percent of children crawl into the vehicles themselves.
Vehicles heat up rapidly to fatal levels. At just 70 degrees outside, a vehicle interior can reach dangerous temperatures in just minutes. Interior temperatures rise more than 40 degrees in an hour, and leaving windows open doesn’t help keep the vehicle cooler. A study in Pediatrics journal shares more information.
A child’s body temperature rises 3-5 times faster than an adult's. When in hot vehicles, children are at risk of hyperthermia. Hyperthermia is commonly called heatstroke or sunstroke, and can be fatal to children and pets left in vehicles. For children who survive, it can cause permanent brain damage.
A routine change is a common factor in the situations leading to these deaths. The day is unusual with additional tasks and stresses, and a child is forgotten. A parent or caregiver who doesn't usually drop off a child at daycare must do so, but forgets and drives straight to work, where the child remains in the parking lot. Most at risk are very young children sitting in car seats where they cannot be easily seen, or heard if they fall asleep. A March 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post story, Fatal Distraction, shares how this can happen due to life situations and the human memory.
- Always place something that you need in the back seat like your handbag, briefcase, or cell phone so you must go to the back seat before walking away from the vehicle.
- Keep a stuffed animal in the car and when your child is in the back seat, place the animal in the front as a visual cue.
- Use drive-thru services when available.
- Encourage your day care provider to establish a call system where your provider will call caregivers if children are not dropped off as expected.
- Encourage employers to place reminders calling attention to easily-overlooked children in the back seat.
Power windows are in most new cars. Younger children do not understand what automatic switches or power windows can do. Children can easily lean out the window and get caught in them if they accidentally activate the switch. Unable to reverse the window, children can be injured or fatally strangled.
- Have children properly located in car seats so they cannot reach power window switches.
- Choose a car seat appropriate to your child’s weight, height and age. See our child passenger safety page for information.
- Do not leave children alone in vehicles, even to run a quick errand. (It is illegal in some states to leave your child alone for more than 10 minutes.)
- Lock power windows from the driver’s seat so that children cannot get caught and injured in them.
Children sometimes think trunks are fun places to play, but they can get trapped in trunks and be overcome by heat exhaustion before they can call for help. Help may not arrive if children in trunks cannot be heard.
- Teach children that trunks are only used to store and move items, and are not safe places to play.
- Make sure that children do not have access to keys and keep your vehicle locked at all times, even in the driveway or garage.
- Keep rear fold-down seats up and secured in place, to prevent kids from getting into the trunk from the passenger area.
- Show children how to locate and use the glow-in-the-dark emergency release found in newer vehicles. This feature does not exist in cars made before 2001, but there are inexpensive kits you can buy to retrofit your car.
- Check trunks first if you can’t find your child. It’s quite possible they have found the perfect hiding place.