Legislation Aims to Protect Kids, Pets from Heatstroke Deaths in Locked Cars

Andrew Kitchenman | July 23, 2015 | Health Care
Bill would provide civil-liability immunity to Good Samaritans who break into vehicles to rescue children or animals

On a pleasant day like yesterday, with highs around New Jersey in the mid-80s, the danger posed by parents who leave their children in a parked car can be particularly acute — the temperature in cars can rise to more than 40 degrees warmer than the air outside, creating potentially deadly conditions.

In a year that’s seen 10 children die across the country from heatstroke from being left inside vehicles, an effort is underway in the Garden State to remind parents to prevent this from happening — and for bystanders to take action when they see a child in danger.

In addition, Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson (D-Mercer and Middlesex) is proposing legislation that would provide immunity from civil liability for anyone who breaks into a car to protect a child or pet in danger of heatstroke.

While no New Jersey children have died from vehicular heatstroke since 2008, in the five years before that 10 children died, according to the site noheatstroke.org. Some of those incidents — such as the 2005 case of three Camden children who died after the lid to the trunk they were playing in closed — raised awareness of the issue, and public-health advocates warn that adults should not become complacent.

“We are tremendously concerned and are working as hard as we possibly can to spread the word,” said Carol Ann Giardelli, director of Safe Kids New Jersey, an organization devoted to reducing the number of preventable injuries to children.

The state Department of Transportation provides guidelines that people should follow when they find a child in a locked car. First, make sure the child is OK and responsive. If not, call 911 immediately. Then, if the child appears OK, the person should attempt to locate the parents; if another person is there, one person should stay with the child. Finally, if the child is not responsive or in distress, attempt to enter the car, even if it means breaking a window.

Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Middlesex County, and the City of Perth Amboy are holding a meeting tomorrow to talk about the potential dangers posed by the summer heat to those left in parked cars.

“We want everyone to take action and not just walk away hoping things” will be alright for children, Giardelli said. “Because that’s just not going to be the case.”

Diana Starace, injury prevention coordinator for the RWJUH and Safe Kids New Jersey, said parents should always keep the danger in mind.

“This can happen to anybody; don’t think that you can’t forget your child in your car because this happens anywhere,” Starace said.

Starace said that whenever the issue fades from public view, the danger increases.

“We have had many near misses in New Jersey, but that is because we have had people who stopped, to be that Good Samaritan,” Starace said, adding, “We’ve been lucky.”

“We all have to be vigilant about this topic over and over and over again – if we don’t talk about it then people forget about it,” she said.

Benson based his bill, which hasn’t been introduced yet, on legislation enacted by Tennessee. The bill would provide immunity to adults who reasonably believe that forcible entry is necessary because a child or pet is in imminent danger; contact police or other emergency responders; place a notice with their contact information on the car; and remain with the child or animal in a safe, nearby location until emergency responders arrive.

Benson he was moved to act “seeing another summer where we read in the paper about children being left in a vehicle and pets left to die in a car.”

Benson noted that adults’ perception of safe temperatures and the actual danger to children can be radically different.

For example, a 4-month-old baby died in Jersey City in 2005 on a May day when the outside temperature was 70 degrees.

“When you’re outside, you might think it’s just a cool summer day, when in reality this is the type of day that could be a killer,” Benson said. “And we want to make sure we empower Good Samaritans.”

Starace noted that babies’ bodies can’t handle the heat as adults can. She said she was impressed with Benson’s proposal.

“I would be hard pressed (to think of) a situation, even without that bill, where somebody would get in trouble for breaking a window to help a child,” she said. “But if the bill’s going to help — great.”

The Perth Amboy event will be held at 3:30 p.m. at Sadowski Parkway and Brighton Avenue.

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