Girl Dies After Reportedly Left In Car

Makiki fire station
Makiki fire station

MAKIKI (KHNL) - The medical examiner's office has identified the girl who reportedly died after being left in a car yesterday afternoon as three-year-old Sera Okutani of Honolulu.

Fire officials say the girl's father brought her to the Makiki fire station, where they tried to revive her until EMS could arrive. According to EMS, the girl was taken to Kapiolani Medical Center where she was pronounced dead. Police are investigating.

KIDS AND CARS is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing injuries and death that occur when children are left unattended in or around motor vehicles. It says:

"We were saddened to learn about the little girl who was left alone in a hot vehicle yesterday. Please forward our deepest and most sincere sympathies to the family. This appears to be the first child that has perished from hyperthermia so far this year. Last year at least 29 children died of hyperthermia after being left alone in a hot vehicle.

We have been working with Representative Lee's office for passage of HB356. This bill would make it illegal to leave children alone in vehicles and provide the basis for an education campaign to alert caregivers about the dangers of leaving children alone in vehicles. Attached is the testimony we submitted in support of this important child safety bill.

KIDS AND CARS is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating the common practice of leaving children unattended in motor vehicles and therefore reducing the incidence of injury and death to children. Children are injured or die in Hawaii as a result of being left alone in motor vehicles. These tragedies are truly heart-wrenching; but preventable. We encourage passage of HB356 because it will save the lives of innocent children.

We worked with Senator Inouye's office in Washington, DC about this very topic last year. We were successful in getting language passed in the Transportation bill that was signed by President Bush in August of 2005. (SAFETEA-LU) The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will now be required to collect data about nontraffic incidents. Finally the magnitude of this issue will be known, but we do not need to wait for their reports; we already know this is a significant issue in Hawaii.

Attached is an editorial from the Star Bulletin dated October 22, 2005 entitled "Law needed to keep parents from leaving keiki in vehicles." This article highlights specific incidents that have been reported in Oahu and urges legislators to pass a bill like HB356 to help protect children. We concur.

There is a need for a law to raise public awareness about the dangers of leaving children unattended inside motor vehicles. Well-meaning parents and caregivers of all socioeconomic levels leave children alone in automobiles every day for a variety of reasons, but primarily because they are unaware of the dangers associated with leaving them alone. Education alone is not enough to change behaviors associated with this dangerous practice. Through legislation and education the practice of leaving children unattended in motor vehicles can be greatly reduced.

Currently a law enforcement officer only has two choices when they come upon the scene where a child has been left alone in a vehicle. (1) They can find the parent or caregiver and give them a "scolding;" or (2) Take the children from the parents and put them in child protective services and charge the parent with child endangerment or child neglect. In many cases, these two choices are not what is needed. A 'scolding' will probably not change the dangerous behavior and the child endangerment or neglect charge may seem too harsh. We believe that law enforcement officers need another "tool" to prevent children from being left alone in vehicles and that 'tool' is a specific law against this practice. An example of how to view this law is thinking about how law enforcement officers currently issue traffic tickets. If every time you were caught speeding an officer simply gave you a 'scolding' it certainly would not do too much to stop people from speeding. On the other hand, if any time you got caught speeding your driver's license was taken away, people would be outraged. Without a specific law like HB356, the only choices would be the 'scolding' or taking your children away. This new law enables the community to educate parents and caregivers to better understand the dangers of leaving children alone and unsupervised in motor vehicles. Too often, there are serious dangers associated with leaving a young child alone in a car. For example, when the outside temperature is 80° F, the temperature inside a car receiving direct sunlight can reach 110º F after 5 minutes. When a person's body temperature reaches 106° F, he or she can die or suffer permanent disability from heat stroke. Other children have died from being strangled by a power window, inadvertently knocking a car into gear, carbon monoxide poisoning, falling out of the car and being run over, can choke on a toy or be kidnapped. Also, children have been injured when the car is stolen with them in it. Children taken during the course of a car theft has happened far too often in Hawaii. This diverts precious public resources and puts innocent children in harms way.

HB356 carries the same philosophy as giving a ticket to someone who does not wear his or her seatbelt. People understand the inherent dangers, but it took legislation to change the dangerous behavior. HB356 is not meant to be punitive but to promote public education about the serious consequences of this risky behavior. With passage of this bill, information will be given to all new drivers via the Hawaii driver's license exam. This will tell residents that Hawaii is serious about protecting children and will not tolerate this dangerous behavior. HB356 will also help to empower the public to feel comfortable and confident that they are doing the right thing by reporting that innocent young children have been left alone in a vehicle.

Research studies conclude that infants and young children should never be left unattended in a vehicle even if "just for a few minutes." Aside from heat death, a tragedy can occur when the car is stolen while the child is left in the vehicle, from the actions of a young child who places the car into gear, or who plays with the power windows.

Eleven states have already adopted state laws prohibiting the leaving of young children alone in a motor vehicle. These states are California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington. KIDS AND CARS is working with the remaining states interested in passing legislation. The goal is to have a law that specifically addresses the need for prevention and education about this dangerous behavior in every state.

It is time for Hawaii to take effective, reasonable steps to prevent child injuries and deaths from this most preventable life safety risk. HB356 will provide both the monetary incentive to prevent injuries as well as provide a means of educating the public about the grave dangers associated with leaving a child alone in a vehicle. Attached are several articles that speak to the need of this important bill.

A 2003 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study reports that during July 2000-June 2001, an estimated 9,160 nonfatal injuries and 78 fatal injuries occurred in children 14 and younger as a result of being left unattended in or around motor vehicles that were not in traffic. KIDS AND CARS has documented over 1000 child deaths in the US within the last decade because children were left unattended in or around vehicles.

We are hopeful that the heightened public awareness and education that will occur as a result of passage of this bill will serve to save lives and reduce the number of tragic incidents involving children left unattended in vehicles.

KIDS AND CARS urges your support for HB356.

Safety Tips from KIDS AND CARS

  • Never leave children alone in or around cars; not even for a minute.
  • Put something you'll need like your cell phone, handbag, a KIDS AND CARS sunshade, lunch or brief case, etc., 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. This will soon become a habit. We call this the "look then lock campaign"
  • Keep a large teddy bear in the child's car seat when it's not occupied. When the child is placed in the seat, put the teddy bear in the front passenger seat. It's a visual reminder that anytime the teddy bear is up front you know the child is in the back seat in a child safety seat.
  • Use drive-thru services when available. (restaurants, banks, pharmacies, dry cleaners, etc.)
  • If you see a child alone in a vehicle, get involved. If they are hot or seem sick, get them out as quickly as possible. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
  • Keep vehicles locked at all times; even in the garage or driveway and always set your parking brake.
  • Keys and/or remote openers should never be left within reach of children.
  • Make sure all child passengers have left the vehicle after it is parked.
  • Be especially careful about keeping children safe in and around cars during busy times, schedule changes and periods of crisis or holidays.
  • When a child is missing, check vehicles and car trunks immediately.
  • Use your debit or credit card to pay for gas at the pump.
  • Make arrangements with your child's day care center or babysitter that you will always call them if your child will not be there on a particular day as scheduled. This is common courtesy and sets a good example that everyone who is involved in the care of your child is informed of their whereabouts on a daily basis. Ask them to phone you if your child doesn't show up when expected. Many children's lives could have been saved with a telephone call from a concerned child care provider. Give child care providers all your telephone numbers, including that of an extra family member or friend, so they can always confirm the whereabouts of your child.