With the start of summer less than two weeks away and temperatures rising, local authorities are urging parents not to leave their children unattended in vehicles, especially after a York woman was accused last week of leaving three children in a car for more than 40 minutes while she was shopping.
Shawnetta Wright, 25, was charged with three counts of unlawful conduct toward a child after leaving her two children and her niece alone in a car while she went shopping in Walmart on Dave Lyle Boulevard. A passerby noticed the children crying and drenched in sweat inside the car with the front windows cracked just a couple of inches, according to a Rock Hill police report.
Wright, who had been in the store about 40 minutes, told officers she had only been inside for a few minutes, according to the report. Police estimated the outside temperature at that time Friday was about 85 degrees.
“On an 80-degree day, the inside of a closed car can quickly exceed 100 degrees, and cracking the window does not help to keep it cool inside,” said Robert White, assistant chief for Piedmont EMS and co-chair for Safe Kids York County. “In as little as 10 minutes, a car can heat up 20 degrees.”
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Because it’s smaller, a child’s body heats up three to five times faster than an adult’s, White said.
“When the body’s temperature reaches about 104 degrees, the internal organs start to shut down,” he said. “When it reaches 107 degrees, the child can die.”
In 2014, 30 children died in incidents involving a hot car, including a 3-year-old Lancaster boy who snuck out of his family’s home while his mother was sleeping and got trapped in a car along with his family’s dog.
White said one of the largest preventable deaths among children is heatstroke, also known as hyperthermia, which he described as the body’s inability to cool itself quickly enough after the body’s temperature rises to dangerous levels.
First responders are asking people to be aware and to take action if they see a child unattended in a vehicle.
Rock Hill police spokesman Mark Bollinger said the first thing to do is assess the child’s condition.
“Try to calm them down the best you can through the window,” he said. “Dial 911. You need to get police and fire en route as soon as you can.”
Bollinger urged people to call law enforcement before taking matters into their own hands.
“First, try the doors and see if they’re locked. If they’re unlocked, open the car up and try to render aid to the children,” he said. “If they think they can wait a minute or two for police and fire to get there, they should just wait. But if they think it’s a dire situation, they should knock the window out. If it looks like the children are not breathing or are passed out, then you need to try to take some action.”
If the child is old enough, he or she might be able to unlock the door for someone.
“Of course, most children are taught not to go to strangers,” Bollinger said. “So it’s a Catch 22.”
A bill in the state General Assembly would give a person immunity from civil liability if they damage a car to remove a child they believe to be “in imminent danger of suffering harm if not removed.” The S.C. House of Representatives in February unanimously approved the bill, which is now in a Senate subcommittee.
State Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, is a co-sponsor of the bill, H.3145.
“A lot of times people will want to help but they have a fear,” Pope said. “They have a fear if that I do this, I’m gonna be subject to liability. Hopefully, people are not thinking about liability when they’re deciding a child or vulnerable adult needs help. This was to address that issue, to make it clear.”
Some people might leave their child in the car with the engine and air conditioner running. Bollinger said that while this decreases the risk of heat-related injury, it increases the chance of the vehicle being stolen.
“Somebody can steal your car or try to break into your car and your children are in there,” he said. “If the car is running, that is really an advertisement to the bad guys.”
Bollinger said it’s OK to leave an older child in the car to look after the younger children, as long as there’s still a way to keep the vehicle cool and the child is a responsible older teenager who knows to lock the doors to strangers.
To prevent heat-related deaths of children in cars, White said the best thing to do is never leave a child alone in a car, not even for a minute.
Because some parents or caregivers may forget about a child in the car if it’s not their normal routine, White urged parents to leave an item they’ll need at their destination, like a cellphone, purse or briefcase, next to the child as a reminder.
The S.C. House bill H.3145 doesn’t cover damage to cars while breaking in to rescue a pet in a hot car. Bollinger said Rock Hill police routinely receive calls about pets left in hot cars, but he urged people to first try to determine how long the animal has been in the car.
“People have become more aware of pets and children in cars, and they call us,” he said. “So we go check each one out.”
Teddy Kulmala • 803-329-4082