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Children Left in Cars: Preventing Accidental Heatstroke

Reggie McKinnon addresses a press conference attended by Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg, Transportation Secretary Ant(From left to right) Reggie McKinnon addresses a press conference attended by Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Dr. Leticia Manning Ryan. McKinnon lost a daughter to heatstroke.By Jesus Garcia, Special Assistant, Office of Public Affairs

On a nice spring morning Reggie McKinnon picked up his two-year-old daughter from day care for a trip to the doctor’s office for a quick checkup. Little Payton, the youngest of three, had recently completed a successful surgery to alleviate a constant ear infection.

Photo of temperatures being recorded inside and outside the car.Although the morning's temperature registered at 76 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature inside of the car climbed to 93 degrees in a matter of minutes.Reggie felt really good that day. The bright sunny day reflected how he felt inside because Payton was on her way to good health. Reggie shared the great news with his coworker during lunch as they talked about work and baseball. After a long day at work, Reggie headed to his vehicle to go home. As he arrived at his vehicle, all he remembered hearing was a loud scream: his own.

Reggie had forgotten to take his daughter back to day care after the doctor’s appointment. After several hours in a vehicle, Payton passed away due to complications from heatstroke.

I, along with ACF Head Start and Child Care staff, Department of Transporation employees and invited national media, heard Reggie tell his heartbreaking story at a “Look Before You Lock” awareness event in Washington, D.C. Surrounded by a playground and early learning classrooms at Rosemount Center, Reggie warned others about the dangers of leaving an unattended child in a car.

“I used to think this happened to drunks, uneducated people or drug addicts,” said Reggie. “This can happen to anyone. There is no demographic. Doctors, lawyers and rocket scientists have had this happened to them.”

Reggie was one of four speakers that day. All had important messages.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said every single death from leaving children in hot cars is 100 percent avoidable. The majority of these cases are accidental tragedies that can strike even the most loving parents and caregivers. He urged parents and caregivers to set up routines when transporting children to remind them about the child in the backseat, such as leaving your bag, wallet or phone near the child. He also urged folks to call 9-1-1 if they see a child locked in a car. A person only has a few minutes to react before a child goes into heatstroke.

Dr. Leticia Manning Ryan, an assistant professor of pediatrics at John Hopkins Children’s Center, elaborated about the health effects of heatstroke. Vehicles heat up quickly—even with a window rolled down two inches. If the outside temperature is in the low 80s° Fahrenheit, the temperature inside a vehicle can reach deadly levels in only 10 minutes. Heatstroke is a serious risk even with temperatures in the 60s or 70s and cracking a window does not help. “When a child’s temperature reaches 104 degrees, the child start experiencing organ failure,” said Dr. Ryan. “When a child’s temperature reaches 107 degrees that child will die.”

Acting Assistant Mark Greenberg meets with Head Start mother.Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg greets a Head Start mother at Rosemount Center in Washington, D.C. ACF has developed training resources and technical assistance protocols for Head Start and child care providers aimed at preventing transportation-related tragedies. In 2013 alone, 1,378 Head Start programs provided transportation to 290,779 children. Currently 68 percent of Head Start and Early Head Start programs offer transportation.ACF's Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg shared how the nation’s network of Head Start staff and child care providers have been provided training and materials to raise awareness about heatstroke. ACF has access to the parents of 1.5 million children in child care and 1.1 million children in Head Start. In addition to disseminating the Look Before You Lock message and materials to early care and education providers throughout the country, ACF through its Offices of Head Start and Child Care have:

  • Developed training resources and technical assistance protocols for Head Start and child care providers aimed at preventing transportation-related tragedies
  • Produced and disseminated a public service announcement to all early care and education stakeholders, administrators and grantees stressing the importance of the issue
  • Issued a joint letter, co-signed by the HHS and DOT Secretaries to early care and education providers explaining the gravity of the issue and urging them to take advantage of technical assistance aimed at improving transportation safety and heat stroke prevention
  • Included in the Secretaries’ letter, pledge templates that providers can sign with parents in order to commit to immediately inform each other if a child is expected to arrive at home or at an early care and education center and does not

By talking about this issue, we can raise awareness and lower deaths. In 2014, we have had 18 child vehicular heatstroke deaths (as of July 25, 2014).  Last year, we lost 44 children and in 2012 we had 34 children die. Please remember:

  • A child’s body heats up three to five times faster than an adult’s body
  • Heatstroke deaths have been recorded in 11 months of the year in nearly all 50 states
  • More than half of heatstroke deaths occurred when a distracted caregiver forgot a quiet child was in the vehicle
  • Creating reminders and habits is an effective way to ensure that a child is not forgotten in the vehicle

For more fact and safety tips for early learning and care providers, visit this link. To learn more about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's "Where's Baby? Look Before You Lock." campaign, visit

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