William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review


Shannon Murphy


When the sun is shining bright on a scorching ninety-degree summer day, it takes less than an hour for tragedy to strike, even in the shade. Within less than sixty minutes, the temperature inside a closed vehicle will rise rapidly from the outdoor ninety-degree mark to upwards of more than one hundred and thirty degrees. As this temperature spike takes effect, any animal or child left in a vehicle will only have about fifteen minutes before being exposed to potentially deadly conditions.

While most of us think we are incapable of accidentally leaving our beloved child or companion in the car, the record-breaking number of deaths resulting from this mistake in 2018 paints a different picture. According to KidsAndCars.org an average of thirty-eight children pass away from vehicular heat-stroke each year while waiting for their parents, guardians, or caregivers to return. However, the recorded number of children who succumb to this tragedy may only provide a glimpse into the number of children who actually fall victim to vehicular heat-stroke for two reasons. First, the recorded number does not address the number of children who are rescued from near-death experiences during an incident of vehicular heat-stroke, only to be left with long-term disabling effects. Second, in a typical case of vehicular heat-stroke, a majority of the first responders who write up their reports are not required to list a child’s cause of death with the exact phrase “vehicular heat-stroke” or “hyperthermia.” Instead, first responders typically categorize the child’s death as a non-traffic-related incident. This allows for a presumption that the number of children dying each year is actually much higher than recorded, and that the recorded deaths are only “the tip of the iceberg.” Even worse, these kids are not the only victims. Each year hundreds of animals are left in their owners’ vehicles, patiently waiting for them to return. Imagine each one of these animals pacing through the vehicle, alone, while the air around them is rapidly heating up. Since 1998, over 900 children have lost their lives, and thousands more children and pets have suffered from the effects of vehicular heat-stroke. In hindsight, the pain of almost every single one of these victims, children and animals alike, could have been spared.

Focusing on congressional history of federal motor vehicle safety standards, coupled with currently available technology, this Note will argue that it is time for Congress to enact legislation requiring the Secretary of Transportation to issue a regulation that addresses, reduces, and hopefully eliminates the number of children and animals passing away or suffering lifelong damages from vehicular heat-stroke. A law mandating regulation would require the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) to act under the guidance of the Secretary of Transportation and test appropriate safety devices to combat vehicular heat-stroke. The safety devices chosen by the NHTSA would be mandated to appear in all new vehicle models over the next few years. A regulation of this magnitude would not only help protect the lives and safety of both our children and pets, but would also lead to a significant decrease in the number of deaths and injuries resulting from non-crash related incidents.

Part I of this Note will address the facts surrounding vehicular heat-stroke deaths for both children and animals by analyzing the number of victims this tragedy claims each year, the locations where these deaths occurred, the time of year, and the cause behind the deaths. Part II of the Note will study previous statutes enacted by Congress that regulate motor vehicle safety for children. This will be done via an analysis of the motivating factors behind each regulation and their benefits in application. Next, Part III of this Note will survey the technology presently available to prevent vehicular heat-stroke. Finally, Part IV of this Note will provide an overview of state laws and awareness campaigns currently in place, which will prove that our children and animals require further protection. As this Note will display, the problem of vehicular heat-stroke is ripe for congressional action. The longer we wait, the higher the death and injury toll will get.