Penalties vary in car deaths
Car heat killed about 340 children in 10 years.
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published July 29, 2007
MANASSAS, Va. - Kevin Kelly is a law-abiding citizen who, much distracted, left his beloved 21-month-old daughter in a sweltering van for seven hours.
Frances Kelly had probably been dead for more than four hours when a neighbor noticed her strapped in her car seat.
What is the appropriate punishment for a doting parent responsible for his child's death? A judge spared Kelly a lengthy prison term. Still, it is a question asked dozens of times a year.
Since the mid 1990s, the number of children who died of heat exhaustion while trapped inside vehicles has risen dramatically, totaling around 340 in the past 10 years. Ironically, one reason was a change parent-drivers made to protect their kids after juvenile air-bag deaths peaked in 1995 - they put them in the back seat, where they are more easily forgotten.
An Associated Press analysis of more than 310 fatal incidents in the past 10 years found that prosecutions and penalties vary widely, depending in many cases on where the death occurred and who left the child to die:
- Mothers are treated more harshly than fathers. While mothers and fathers are charged and convicted at about the same rates, mothers were jailed 59 percent of the time, compared with 47 percent for fathers. And the median sentence was three years for fathers, but five for mothers. "I think we generally hold mothers to a higher standard in the criminal justice context than in just family life generally," said Jennifer M. Collins, a professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law who has studied negligence involving parents.
- Day care workers and other paid babysitters are more likely than parents to be charged and convicted. But they are jailed less frequently than parents, and for less than half the time.
- Charges are filed in half of all cases - even when a child was left unintentionally.
In all, the AP analyzed 339 fatalities involving more than 350 responsible parties.
A relatively small number of cases - about 7 percent - involved drugs or alcohol. In a few instances, the responsible parties had a history of abusing or neglecting children. Still others were single parents unable to find or afford day care. Many cases involved what might be called community pillars.
"But no one thinks it's going to happen to them," said Janette Fennell, founder and president of Kids and Cars, a nonprofit group that tracks child deaths and injuries in and around automobiles. The AP's analysis was based largely on the group's database.
The correlation between the rise in these deaths and the 1990s move to put children in the back seat is striking.
"Up to that time, the average number of children dying of hyperthermia in the United States was about 11 a year," said Jan Null, an adjunct professor of meteorology at San Francisco State University who has studied this trend. "Then we put them in the back, turned the car seats around. And from '98 to 2006, that number is 36 a year."
Preventing deaths from hyperthermia
There are products that could prevent most hyperthermia deaths. Among them:
-The Child Minder system replaces the car seat's harness clip with a "smart clip" synchronized to a key ring alarm. The unit is activated when the child is buckled in. As long as the child remains in the seat, an alarm will sound if the adult walks more than 10 feet from the automobile.
-NASA is on the verge of licensing its Child Presence Sensor, which replaces the clip with a weight-sensitive pad that fits under the car seat cushion. An alarm sounds 10 warning beeps if the driver moves too far away from the vehicle, and beeps continuously if the driver doesn't return within one minute. Engineers at the agency's Langley Research Center in Virginia developed the device after a colleague left his 9-month-old son in a hot car in May 2000.
-Volvo's flagship S80 sedan includes a Personal Car Communicator that can detect a heartbeat inside the vehicle and send a warning to the driver's wireless key fob. Volvo is marketing it as a safety option for women worried about back-seat attackers, not as a way to remind the driver of a child left behind.