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Hot cars are no place for children

Editorial

As the weather gets hotter, so do concerns about unintended illnesses and deaths that can come from being careless with autos.

We're not, however, talking about moving vehicles. Sure, as the days get longer and people start looking for things to do, travel gets more extensive, increasing the chances for a wreck to occur. But a car that is stationary under the blistering Georgia sun can be just as deadly to an unwary occupant, particularly a young one.

Since 1998, according to numbers from San Francisco State University's Department of Geosciences, 559 children and youth 14 years old and younger have died in hot vehicles through 2012. In 2012, there were 32 deaths, one fewer than in 2011. The average number of deaths each year since 1998 is 38.

Among the states in that period, Georgia is tied with North Carolina for No. 6 in total deaths with 20. Texas leads the nation with 84, followed by Florida, 61; California, 36; Arizona, 24, and Tennessee. As a percentage of the total population of those 14 and younger, Georgia ranks No. 21 nationally, with 9.7 fatalities per 1 million people ages 14 and younger.

These deaths are all the more tragic because they are 100 percent avoidable.

The university's Geosciences Department found that more than half -- 52 percent -- were because of adult carelessness. The caretaker simply forgot that the child was in the car or truck. Nearly three out of 10 -- 29 percent -- of the children who died were playing in unattended vehicles. The most disturbing statistic -- 18 percent of the children who died were intentionally left in the vehicle by an adult. That is incomprehensible.

The younger the child, the more likely he or she is to succumb to the heat. More than three out of 10 -- 31 percent -- were less than a year old, the university found, with the youngest being only 5 days old. Twenty-two percent were 1 year old, and 20 percent were 2 years old. Three-year-old children comprised 14 percent of the deaths, which dropped to 6 percent for 4 year olds. The rates declined further as the ages got older, which makes sense. Younger children are more vulnerable to high temperatures and are much less likely to know how to get out of the dangerous situation.

"It is never safe to leave children alone in cars, no matter what the temperature, not even for a minute," says Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, said. "Children's body temperatures warm at a rate 3 to 5 times faster than adults, putting them at a much higher risk for heat-related illness. The bottom line is never leave a child alone in a car. Period."

The fact is, it doesn't have to be 90 degrees for the temperature in a closed car, truck or SUV to rise to a deadly level. But we'll be at that mark soon enough -- and past it -- which means vehicles will be getting hot quickly.

Today, officials with six state agencies and three partner organizations are beginning a push for adults and caregivers to be aware of this danger. We're fortunate that we haven't had more deaths of this nature in our state, but even one is too many when a death is easily preventable.

Three rules need to be remembered:

-- Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle;

-- Lock your car and put the keys away, even if the vehicle in parked at your home;

-- If you see a child who has been left in a vehicle, call 911.

Summer should be a carefree time for young children, but we can't allow it to be a careless time for the adults who they depend on to protect them.

-- The Albany Herald Editorial Board