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New law cites parents who leave children at risk, unattended in hot cars

Published: Monday, May 9 2011 8:13 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — It happens more than anyone wants it to, but even with repeated warnings, children are still dying in hot cars.

On Tuesday, Utah joins 19 other states in the country where leaving a child unattended and at risk in a motor vehicle is against the law.

SB 124, which narrowly passed through the Utah Legislature earlier this year, amends Utah's Criminal Code and gives law enforcement options to deal with kids left alone in cars. Instead of issuing charges of child abuse or neglect, which are far more serious in nature, they can cite parents with a class C misdemeanor for at least the first offense.

"It adds needed clarity to the law, that leaving a child unattended in a motor vehicle under circumstances that constitute risk is behavior that needs to be punished, but is not child abuse," Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, said in a debate on the bill during this year's legislative session. He's hoping it deters parents from making a sometimes fatal decision.

In the last 13 years, at least eight Utah children have died from hyperthermia or heat stroke, and officials are saying that is eight too many.

"It is horribly tragic and entirely preventable," said Jenny Johnson, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Health's Violence and Injury Prevention program. With warmer temperatures on the way, she said parents need to get into the habit of never leaving kids unattended in a motor vehicle, even if it is just to run a quick errand.

"We don't realize how fast a car can heat up," she said, adding that kids' bodies don't handle the heat or sweat as effectively as adults. "We don't realize how dangerous it is for them."

Nationally, 2010 was the worst year yet, with 49 hyperthermia deaths across the country. Already this year, there have been two deaths resulting from kids left in cars, in Texas and Louisiana.

"The Utah sun can quickly turn a car into a deadly oven, even on a cool day," said Christi Fisher, director of Safe Kids Utah. She said that on a typical 78-degree day, temperatures inside a car can climb to 100 degrees in just three minutes. After six to eight minutes, the temperature can reach over 125 degrees.

One hundred four degrees is enough to begin causing serious symptoms of heat stroke, including dizziness, a rapid heart beat, flushed skin and disorientation, among others, and a 107-degree core temperature is lethal and begins a process that shuts down the body's own organs.

In Utah, sisters Jaesha and Audrey Smith, their cousins Ashley and Alisha Richardson, and their friend McKell Hedden, all under the age of 6, died after they became trapped in the truck of a car in West Valley City in August 1998. Two-year-old Dylan Bjorkman died later that same year when he fell asleep inside his family's car and was discovered an hour later by his sister.

It wasn't until April 2008 when the state witnessed a similar death. Eighteen-month-old Myles Gailey died in his mother's car. She had left him in the driveway of the family's Kearns home and remembered him three hours later.

Also in 2008, in June, 5-month-old Daniel Hadley was left alone in his mother's parked car. While he was alone for three hours in the hot car, he died at the hospital three days later, according to news reports.

Bjorkman's mother, Candice, wrote about her "nightmare" in an account for Kids and Cars, a national organization that promotes awareness of child safety issues.

She said her daughter's discovery elicited "a scream that I will never forget. … It only took 20 minutes in 86-degree weather for the heat to take Dylan away from us."

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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