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Report Released on Child Deaths from Heat-Related Motor Vehicle Entrapment

July 23, 2009 | Virginia News

Between 1988 and 2003, thirteen children died in Virginia from heat-related injuries as a result of confinement in a motor vehicle. The children were left unattended in a vehicle by a caretaker or climbed into a vehicle on their own and became entrapped. The State Child Fatality Review Team reviewed these child deaths and identified strategies to prevent these tragic and fatal injuries.

Key circumstances identified by the Team include the following:
  • Males (nine deaths) had a higher frequency of death than females (four deaths).
  • Twelve children were white and one child was black.
  • All deaths occurred among children less than 5 years of age, with a mean age of 22 months and a range of 8 months to 59 months.
  • In eleven of the thirteen deaths, the child’s parent was responsible for supervision of the child at the time of entrapment. A babysitter had responsibility for the child in two cases. Two caretakers assigned the responsibility of removing a child from a safety seat and vehicle to an older child.
  • Among the twelve incidents of motor vehicle entrapment, nine occurred when caretakers left children unattended in a vehicle or became incapacitated and could not care for children in the vehicle. Three other incidents occurred when children gained access to a vehicle without their caretaker’s knowledge. Older children were more likely to climb into vehicles on their own while younger children were more often left behind.
  • Child deaths by entrapment in motor vehicles clustered around the summer months between May and September. Outside air temperatures ranged from a high of 80 degrees Fahrenheit to 94 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • The average time a child was left unattended or confined within a vehicle was four hours, and entrapment time ranged from forty-five minutes to nine and one-half hours. Children who were forgotten were left for longer periods of time than children who were intentionally left or those who had climbed into the vehicle of their own.
  • The majority of cases occurred in a parking lot setting.
  • Of the four children who were forgotten by a caretaker, three were transported in a larger model vehicle, such as a sports utility vehicle or a van. Among children who were forgotten, the child safety seat was placed in the back seat directly behind the driver, preventing the caretaker from seeing the child. Among the children who climbed into the vehicle on their own, all three vehicles were models which were low to the ground, allowing the child to gain easy access by reaching for the door handle or trunk latch to climb in.
  • Team members noted a lack of adequate supervision in several children’s deaths. Case review revealed that parents were often undergoing significant or stressful life events, were not following their normal routine, or both.
The Team concluded that the majority of these children’s deaths were preventable and offered recommendations for change in the following areas: legislation, education, primary prevention, parent and caretaker response, and child death investigation. The following report was prepared for use by all Virginians — the Governor, members of the General Assembly,child advocates, policy makers, parents and citizens — with the firm conviction that the number of deaths to Virginia’s children can be reduced. REPORT: Child Deaths from Heat-Related Motor Vehicle Entrapment (PDF)