Hot car

A 31-year-old Victoria woman was getting out of her car on East Crestwood Street in early July when what she never thought could happen to her – happened.

While exiting her vehicle, the mother of six, who asked not to be identified for her safety, locked her baby boy in the back seat.

“I went straight to the back to go open it, not realizing that I locked my door,” she said. “Then I reached in my back pocket to grab my keys; thought I had my keys, but they were caught on a seat belt or something inside.”

The mom immediately called the Victoria Police Department. Reports show they arrived 5 minutes and 52 seconds later, where she said they found her frantically standing by the child’s car window with a hammer.

“I didn’t even realize I had a hammer in my hand; didn’t even think about breaking my own window because that is how many miles an hour your brain is going,” she said. “You’re just not thinking when a situation occurs like that. Your concern is your baby, and I was (having) a complete panic attack.”

The boy, who celebrated his first birthday Thursday, was rescued in less than eight minutes after officers broke a window, she said. His cheeks were flushed and skin damp to the touch, but his vitals were normal. He was OK.

“He wasn’t crying, wasn’t distraught. The paramedics checked him out and he was good,” she said. “It turned out to be very good at the end, but I cried. I felt horrible, you know, but at the same time it was an accident.”

The Victoria mom immediately knew she had accidentally locked her child in the car, but sometimes, for a number of reasons, parents do not. And for other reasons, kids find their way into unlocked cars all by themselves.

Twenty-one children lost their lives this year while trapped in the sweltering heat of unattended vehicles, according to statistics from Kids and Cars, a nonprofit that tracks the tragedies dating back to 1990 and has been lobbying to pass prevention legislation in Congress since 2003.

Four of those children died in the Texas cities of Denton, Galveston, Bardwell and Providence Village this summer, as temperatures rose over 100 degrees.

On average, another 17 kids will die the same way before 2019 ends, Kids and Cars data shows.

Texas has had more children die while left unattended in vehicles than any other state since the 1990s, when the automobile industry started outfitting cars with airbags and kids were moved into the back seat.

“Basically, we eradicated kids from being killed by airbags in the front seat, but at the same time, the number of children dying in hot cars has been steady and is (now) increasing,” said Janette Fennel, the director of Kids and Cars.

These deaths are all preventable, John Mayne, the Magnolia Beach Volunteer Fire/EMS chief, said in a news release. Mayne’s department teamed up with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in an attempt to reduce these deaths by reminding parents and caregivers about the dangers of vehicular heatstroke and leaving children in hot cars.

“As outside temperatures rise, the risk of children dying from vehicular heatstroke increases,” he said. “One child dies from heatstroke nearly every 10 days in the United States from being left in a car or crawling into an unlocked vehicle. What is most tragic is that every single one of these deaths could have been prevented.”

The stories are almost always the same: Parents of all ages, professions and backgrounds – tired, busy, upset or distracted – return to their vehicles to discover the unimaginable, Fennel said.

“The biggest percent are children under the age of 1 and right then, you know the parent is sleep-deprived. Everything they’re doing is a change in their routine, and your brain doesn’t work as well when you’re that fatigued,” Fennel said. “None of these babies had to die and no one wanted them to, but when you absolutely take something entirely out of someone’s view, it can and does happen – we’re fallible; we’re human.”

Congress is considering two bills this year dubbed the Hot Car Acts of 2019: H.R. 3393 and S.B. 1601. Both bills would require vehicles to be manufactured with technology that detects and alerts the presence of a child left behind.

Fennel, who has been working on passing the legislation since 2003, said she does not understand how cars can be outfitted with everything from reminders for ajar gas tank covers, low tire pressure and headlights, but not unattended children.

The only active opposition to the legislation comes from the automobile industry, she said. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, for instance, released the following statement in regards to the bills:

“The loss of any life is tragic, and greater public awareness and vigilance are absolutely crucial to help save young lives, right now, this week. The Alliance will carefully review any legislative proposals keeping in mind that fewer than 13% of new car buyers have a child 6 years old or younger. And with people keeping cars longer, it takes about two decades for a technology to reach all the passenger vehicles on our roads. Greater public awareness saves lives today.”

In an email, an Alliance representative said the 13% figure was derived by Alliance analysts using publicly available information, but could not “come up with the source.”

“Ten years ago, they said it would take 10 years before it would be in all cars. I mean, yeah, this would all be done (by now) and now they’re saying 20 years,” Fennel said in response to the statement.

There are a variety of technologies already on the market designed to prevent these deaths from happening, ranging from apps to sensor-based technology that comes in car seats.

The popular Waze navigation app, for instance, has a “Child Reminder” setting that will pop up at the end of a driver’s trip. Some vehicles are already being manufactured with built-in technology that works similarly to seat belt alerts.

In 2017, for example, General Motors rolled out a back seat reminder system in more than 20 models across GMC, Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac.

The technology is there, but if the public cannot move beyond passing judgment on parents who experience these tragedies, then people will not take advantage of precautionary measures, Fennel said.

“I think way, way, deep down, people realize this could happen to them, but if they decided that the person is a monster; doesn’t care about their kids, which is nothing further from the truth ... they think, ‘Well, I’m a good parent, and this could never happen to me,’” she said. “If you truly believe that, which you shouldn’t because nobody is perfect and our brains don’t work that way, then you won’t put some little safety tips in place and reminders to make sure that the baby gets where it should go.”

Kali Venable is a public safety reporter for the Victoria Advocate. She can be reached at 361-580-6558 or at kvenable@vicad.com.

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Public Safety Reporter

"I am a Houston native and 5th generation Texan, with a degree in journalism and minor in creative writing from the University of Texas at Austin. I care deeply about public interests and the community I serve.”

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