Roughly 38 children nationwide die each year after being left in hot cars, according to kidsandcars.org, an organization working to promote safety for children in and around vehicles.
At least 15 have died already in 2014, succumbing to extreme temperatures that climb as the car's windows trap heat like a greenhouse.
A 3-year-old boy from Lancaster, South Carolina, died on Sunday after suffering heat stroke while trapped in a hot car last Wednesday. A 2-year-old El Paso, Texas, girl also died on Sunday after being found in a locked car.
A Georgia man faces murder and child cruelty charges after the June 18 death of his 22-month-old son, whom he left in a hot SUV while he was at work.
The issue isn't all that foreign to Aiken. An Aiken County woman was sentenced in 2007 to 20 years in prison on a homicide charge after she allegedly left her 15-month-old locked in a car for nine hours.
The internal temperature in an enclosed vehicle can rise 20 degrees within the first 10 minutes, creating a potentially life-threatening environment for children and pets who can't escape, according to kidsandcars.org.
Kids in cars
Children age 4 and younger are particularly susceptible to heat stroke, which occurs when the body's temperature reaches 107 degrees Fahrenheit, said Paula Luther, a pediatrician at Southside Pediatrics in Aiken.
The body temperature of a child can rise up to five times faster than an adult; and on hot summer days, a car's internal temperature can reach between 131 and 172 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a 2004 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Hope Cole, mother to 21-month-old Morgan, cannot understand how a child can be left inside a car for an extended period of time.
“I am not judging those people, but as a mom, it's really hard for me to fathom how it can happen,” the North Augusta resident said. “My child is my first thought of every moment. I truly cannot understand it.”
Cole said she has never forgotten Morgan in the car and believes it's highly unlikely to ever happen. The car feels empty without her young daughter, she said.
“I literally engage with her (in the car) all the time. We talk about the cars, the trees, we sing a song. Even when she was younger, I checked my rearview mirrors constantly,” she said.
Punishment for leaving children unattended in hot cars is substantial.
At a minimum, those parents can be charged with unlawful neglect of a child, said 2nd Circuit Deputy Solicitor David Miller.
In cases where the child dies, that charge could be bumped up to homicide by child abuse, he said.
The best way to prevent these cases is for people with small children to “make it a habit of checking your vehicle before you leave,” just like remembering to put the car in park or locking the doors, said Aiken County Sheriff's Office Capt. Eric Abdullah.
Pets in cars
Pets are prone to heat exhaustion because they are covered in fur and have no way of getting rid of body heat other than panting, said Chrissey Miller with the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare in Aiken.
Aiken Public Safety spokesman Lt. Jake Mahoney said police respond to “multiple calls every week” where pets are left inside vehicles.
People often intentionally leave their pets in cars, blindly thinking that cracking a window solves the problem, Miller said.
“With pets, it's not usually something they forget, but more along the lines of, 'I'm only going to be a minute,'” Miller said. “That minute turns into 10, and before you know it, the dog becomes in danger. Maybe people just don't understand how quickly the heat can get to them.”
Under the City of Aiken's ordinance for animal cruelty, owners who leave a pet unattended in a hot car can face up to 30 days in jail and more than $1,000 in fines, Mahoney said.
Chrissey Miller suggested owners leave their pets at home unless they are going somewhere that allows animals inside.
Even leaving the car on and running the air conditioning is risky because it leaves the pet susceptible to theft, she said.
Law enforcement officials agree that the best plan of action for bystanders who see a child or animal trapped in a hot car is to dial 911 and allow safety officials to respond to the scene.
South Carolina common law generally allows for individuals to break a window to save a trapped child in obvious emergencies, such as if the child is unresponsive, Miller said. But, he said, that doesn't extend to pets.
Avery Wilks is an intern at the Aiken Standard. He is a senior at the University of South Carolina.
Kidsandcars.org lists several tips for avoiding leaving children unattended in hot cars. Here are a few of them.
• Put something you'll need, like your cellphone, handbag or brief case, on the floor board in the back seat.
• Get in the habit of always opening the back door of your vehicle every time you reach your destination to make sure no child has been left behind.
• Keep a large stuffed animal in the child's car seat when it's not occupied. When the child is in the seat, put the stuffed animal in the front passenger seat as a visual reminder that any time the animal is up front, the child is in the back seat.
• Use your debit or credit card to pay for gas at the pump.
Tips to avoid leaving children unattended
Staff photo by Bill Bengtson Graniteville resident Ben Gavin buckles in his sons Matthew, 3, and Benjamin II, 6, before heading home on Monday afternoon from Best Friends Childcare, in North Augusta. Kidsandcars.org recommends to look before you lock, to ensure a child isnít left behind in a car.×