The June death of 22-month-old Cooper Harris in metro Atlanta brought national attention to the grim dangers of leaving a child in a heated vehicle. Yet, dozens of American children die each year in hot cars, including three this year in South Carolina.
It’s a reality that Dee Bien knows all too well.
In addition to her work as Trident Health’s director of Women’s and Children services, Bien also serves as a vice president of KidsAndCars.org , a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping children safe in or around motor vehicles.
Her involvement with the organization is based in personal loss.
In February 2004, when her family lived in Hawaii, a babysitter left her daughter, Aslyn Ryan, behind in a car for 50 minutes. “It was just five days after her first birthday,” recalls Bien. The 1-year-old was still alive when the sitter returned, but it was too late. Aslyn died a few days later at the hospital.
Aslyn’s story is one of failed memory in which changes in routine likely played a role. The sitter had just started taking care of Aslyn five days a week, rather than two to three, and the baby’s car seat was directly behind the driver’s seat, out of the sitter’s line of sight. The sitter had been busy running errands beforehand, including a stop at the local Boy Scout office to drop off paperwork for her son, who was making Eagle Scout.
“Our brains fail us,” acknowledges Bien, who works on education and prevention in hopes that “no other parent goes through this again.”
She encourages parents and caregivers to use “memory triggers,” for example, placing a stuffed animal in the front passenger seat whenever a child is in the vehicle, or placing an item such as a purse or wallet in the back near the child. Cell phone reminders can also serve as a backup.
In some cases, drivers knowingly leave children in vehicles because they don’t fully realize the dangers involved. People need to understand that children are more susceptible to heat stroke, Bien says, and that temperatures inside a closed vehicle can rise quickly, regardless of whether windows are cracked. “Even on a 66-degree day, your car temperature can get so hot that it will cause a child to die.”
Soon after her daughter’s death, Bien worked to pass legislation in Hawaii in Aslyn’s honor to protect children in vehicles. The law calls for fines or parenting classes for adults who leave children in a vehicle unattended and gives permission for bystanders to take measures such as breaking a windshield to rescue a child in a locked vehicle. An educational component includes a related question on the state driver exam and a requirement for rental car companies to cover the issue with customers when checking out vehicles.
Bien has worked with KidsAndCars.Org since 2008. The organization tracks documented fatalities of children in non-traffic accidents that involve vehicles. In addition to heat stroke, the most common incidents involve backovers – when a driver unknowingly backs over an unseen child – and frontovers. Politically, KidsAndCars is pressing for automobile and car seat manufacturers to use innovations such as sensor technology to help prevent these kinds of deaths. “We’ve made it our mission for KidsAndCars to do what we can to save others,” Bien says.
To learn more, see www.KidsAndCars.org.
“Even on a 66-degree day, your car temperature can get so hot that it will cause a child to die.”
-Dee Bien, Trident Health’s director of Women’s and Children services