Highway safety agency seeks fast action to prevent children’s deaths in hot cars

Posted Aug. 02, 2011, at 8:55 p.m.

WASHINGTON — A blue-eyed 1-year-old who died forgotten in the sweltering cab of a black pickup truck is the face of a national campaign to remind parents that children can die in cars under the hot summer sun.

The child was Sophia Cavaliero, who was 10 days past her first birthday when a passerby spotted her lifeless body in the truck parked outside her father’s workplace one afternoon this May when temperatures in Austin reached 100 degrees.

The circumstances of her death echoed those of dozens of others in recent years, including a more recent incident in Prince William County, Va., where a 2-year-old was left strapped in his car seat for seven hours.

Sophia “had lived only 375 days on this Earth,” said her mother, Kristie C. Reeves-Cavaliero. “This day represents to my husband and I our perpetual nightmare and hell on Earth.”

“Rae-Rae,” as her parents called her, was the fourth child nationwide to die this year when left behind or trapped in a car that became overheated. Since then, the number has climbed to 21 deaths, rivaling the pace set last year when 49 children died. Since 1998, it’s believed that 513 children have died this way.

“It’s so urgent that we find effective sets of counter measures that we all can take right now,” said David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who hosted a roundtable discussion Tuesday. “How do we prevent these deaths from happening now?”

Strickland said he sought to raise “awareness of the deadly danger that could result from something as simple as a change in who drops a child off at day care.”

In 51 percent of the known cases of death by hypothermia since 1998, when record- keeping of the deaths began, a child was forgotten by a parent or designated caregiver in a car. Often those were situations where someone, often the other parent, stepped in as a substitute driver to a day-care center and then drove directly to work instead, forgetting a child in the back seat.

Almost a third of the cases involved a child becoming trapped when playing inside an unattended vehicle. In 17 percent of the deaths the child was intentionally left in the vehicle by an adult.

The hotter Southern states recorded the greater number of deaths, with Texas leading the nation with 71, Florida recording 56 and California recording 36. Four states — Vermont, New Hampshire, Wyoming and Alaska — have had none recorded.

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