Summer safety: Preventing vehicular heatstroke

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Cars are shown in a parking lot in north Cullman Wednesday afternoon, July 22, 2020. (Nick Griffin for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – When it’s hot outside, it’s important to remember not to leave anyone- person or pet- in a vehicle unattended. For tips about how to avoid a tragedy, The Tribune contacted Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry and Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper.

“With everyone getting busy with work, playing on their phones, etc. they often forget about their animals in the car, which results in law enforcement receiving calls,” Gentry said. “I encourage everyone to leave their animals at home instead of leaving them in their car with the high heat index when running errands. Obviously, please do NOT leave your young children in a car alone.”

The number of calls the CCSO received concerning a person or animal left in a hot car in the past year was not available.

Culpepper commented, “It’s that time of year when it gets really hot really fast, so you’ve got to be careful. Maybe you say you’ll just be in the store for a minute, but then you see something else you want or you end up browsing for a bit and suddenly your kid or your pet has been left alone in a hot car for half an hour.”

He went on to suggest ways for forgetful people to remind themselves that there’s a vulnerable person or pet in the back seat, including putting notes on the steering wheel or clipping reminders to the car key.

“I’m a bus driver, and we have a way of reminding us to do our walk down the aisle and check for any kids left behind,” he recounted. “There’s an emergency lever at the back of the bus, and once we turn the bus off there’s a timer where we have to go back there, raise it, and lower it to deactivate the alarm. That way we have to go through the bus and look around. If we leave and forget to do the walk-through, the horn starts blaring and the lights start flashing.”

Although that protocol just applies to bus drivers, Culpepper said people should work to come up with their own system to prevent anyone from being forgotten.

When asked about incidents involving hot cars the CPD responded to in the past year, Culpepper stated that most calls involved pets. As for calls about people, many were from parents or caregivers who had accidentally locked their keys in the car and couldn’t get a child out, though he said the CPD received other calls from concerned people who found children sitting unattended. He stated that the protocol for these calls usually involves calling either Cullman County Animal Control or the Cullman County Department of Human Resources to the site to help the victim once they are released. He said there were no fatalities in the past year due to animals or people being left in vehicles. He also stated that because there were no fatalities, the CPD rarely made any arrests; instead, the situation was usually turned over to DHR to decide how to proceed.

A study compiled by The Zebra Insurance (www.thezebra.com/research/hot-car-death-statistics/), found Alabama is the number six state for the highest number of pediatric vehicular heatstroke deaths based on more than 800 reports from 1998-2018, at 27.73 deaths per capita. A survey conducted in January 2020 showed that 25.4% of people from Southern states believed that leaving a window slightly open would completely mitigate the effects of heatstroke, though an experiment by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that it has little effect on cooling a car’s interior. The experiment also showed that two-thirds of the most rapid heating occurred during the first 20 minutes of being unattended, and a car’s interior could reach more than 105F in an hour even if outside temperatures averaged 61F.

The National Safety Council reported that in 2019, 52 children suffered heatstroke from being left in a hot car and died (nearly matching the record high of 53 from 2018). As of July 14, the number of vehicle-related child heatstroke deaths in 2020 is nine. Additionally, 78 pets died of vehicular heatstroke between 2018-19, and breeds with short, broad skulls (like pugs and bulldogs) are more susceptible to the heat and are the breeds more likely to die if trapped in a hot car. While Alabama has Good Samaritan laws allowing bystanders to use any means necessary (including breaking windows) to free children and adults, it does not have one that applies to pets. For more information about vehicular heatstroke, visit www.noheatstroke.org.

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Heather Mann

heather@cullmantribune.com