3-Minute Interview: Jan Null

The California Highway Patrol has affixed ribbons to the antennas of its vehicles this month to warn about the dangers of leaving children unattended in cars. Null, a San Francisco State University professor, is one of the nation’s leading experts on the death of children left in unventilated vehicles.

How many children die from being enclosed in unventilated cars each year? On the average, 36 a year nationwide … But those are only the cases we know of — we’re sure there are cases that don’t get reported.

Has there been a trend? What we think has happened is they started putting airbags in cars, and car seats were moved to the back seat. And that’s also the time rear-facing child seats became popular. So there may be an out-of-sight, out-of-mind factor.

Is that a common cause? About 50 percent of deaths are when children are forgotten by their caregiver. About 30 percent of cases are when children are playing in cars and are overcome by heat. And the final 20 percent of cases are when children are intentionally left in the car by a parent — they may be going shopping, or going into a bar, or racetrack, or to get their hair done.

How fast do cars get hot? In the first ten minutes after a car is enclosed, the car will heat up 19 degrees over whatever the outside temperature is … In the next 10 minutes it goes up another 10 degrees, so on our hypothetical 80 degree day, it’d be 109 in the car. And that is a temperature that can be deadly for a small child in a relatively short period of time.

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