MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) – For most parents, losing a child is the worst thing imaginable. That's why, as temperatures heat up, it's important to learn about the dangers of leaving children in cars for any length of time.
"Childrens' bodies heat up three to five times faster than that of an adult. They have an immature respiratory system, so they aren't able to sweat out enough to keep their bodies' cool," said Janette Fennell of KidsAndCars.org. "We've had cases where a baby has died in as little as 15 minutes."
For Richie Gray, of Hartsville, it's a reality he has to live with for the rest of his life. On May 8, 2014, his 13-month-old daughter Sophia died after spending nine hours inside his vehicle. Temperatures that day had soared into the 90s. Gray thought he had dropped Sophia off at daycare, and had gone about his day at work. Then he got the call that changed everything.
"It was around 5 or 5:30 in the afternoon," Gray said. "I got a phone call from her mom. She said the daycare called and Sophia didn't show up today. Immediately I thought she was kidding. I raced to the car and that was it." Gray was charged with neglect, but the little girl's death was ruled an accident.
"Sophia was the twenty-fourth child that year," Gray said. "I never even realized anything like that happened. "
Being aware is key, according to KidsAndCars.org, a national group that tracks vehicle accidents involving children and promotes safety. According to the group, 87 percent of vehicular heat stroke cases involve children under the age of 3. On average, 37 die each year in hot cars. Since 1990, it's happened to at least ten children in South Carolina. "People need to understand that it can happen to anyone and really take that to heart." Fennell said.
Fennell describes what happened to Gray as "misremembering." He rarely took Sophia to daycare. He normally picked her up. A break in routine, exacerbated by lack of sleep, distraction, or stress can send your brain on autopilot. Some neuroscientists describe it like this: The portion of the brain that stores habit overrules the here and now.
"All it takes is the slightest interruption," Fennell said. "Whenever there is a change in routine, you should really put up the red flags and understand that you have to be extra careful." She recommends relying on visual cues to remind you every time you put the car in park. Put a handbag, employee badge, or cell phone in the back seat next to your child so you have to check in back. She suggests also putting a stuffed animal in the car seat at all times and moving it to the front seat once you buckle your child in.
You can also ask your daycare to call you immediately if your child doesn't show up. For an extra line of defense you can purchase the Evenflo Sensorsafe Seat, which sends an alert if your child is left behind. There are also a number of sensors, such as Driver's Little Helper, you can buy and attach to your existing car seat. KidsAndCars is also lobbying automakers to install technology in new cars that would send alerts, but so far that hasn't happened.
Since Sophia's death, Gray has designed a pink elephant sticker to place on the car window as a reminder to parents to check the backseat. "I told her I would make this right, and that's what I'm trying to do." Gray said.
Remember Sophia/It Takes a Village to Raise a Child Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/remembersophia/
Evenflo Sensor Seat: http://www.evenflo.com/SensorSafe/