A potentially deadly effort to save babies from hot car deaths

Terry Bartley is sweating, and so am I.

He’s sweating literally — sheets of water rolling down his anguished face — as he sits in a hot car and describes on video just how awful that experience is.

I’m sweating figuratively because, much as I want to stand up and cheer his determination to stop more kids from dying in this ghastly way, I’m not sure what he’s done is a good idea. And I’m more than a little uneasy that he’s turned it into a “challenge,” asking other people to make similar videos.

Several people have already joined him – including two boys in tie-dyed shirts sweating profusely and a mother who points to her panting dog in the back seat. They all make the same plea: Don’t do this, don’t leave your kids (or dog) in a hot car.

Bartley, a father of three who lives in North Carolina, was motivated by the death of 22-month-old Cooper Harris of Marietta, plus reports of other children nationwide dying in hot cars. I believe Bartley’s heart in is in the right place.

Cooper’s father is behind bars in Cobb County, charged with murder and second-degree child cruelty. Police say Justin Ross Harris left Cooper strapped into a car seat under a baking sun for seven hours while he went to work. Harris maintains it was an accident.

I understand where people making these hot-car videos are coming from. We are disturbed by the death of a helpless child. It’s unsettling because it challenges our notions of how we want to see the world. About 38 children die in sweltering vehicles each year, according to KidsAndCars.org. We struggle to make sense of it, and we try to do something to prevent this from happening again.

But do these videos, however well-intentioned, make a difference? Or are they just dangerous?

Bartley said he recently posted a Facebook message about the importance of safety when participating in a hot-car challenge. He said it’s not meant to be a game or competition, adding that adults can get a feel of just how suffocatingly hot it can be in a car in as little as five minutes.

Dr. Van Baker, medical director of Piedmont Newnan Hospital’s emergency department, said hot-car challenges are potentially deadly.

The temperature inside a car can climb 20 degrees in just 10 minutes, he said. Heat illness typically begins with leg cramps, weakness and nausea, then anxiety sets in. If you don’t get out of that stifling car, you will eventually experience heat stroke. The part of the brain that normally regulates body temperature malfunctions. You no longer sweat. You become confused, even delirious, Baker said.

In other words, someone making a hot-car video could overheat and possibly lose his or her ability to think clearly enough to open the door and get out.

“People could end up sick, dehydrated, dying,” said Nadine Kaslow, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at Emory University. “So what starts out as a way to make a dramatic point about something we are very concerned about and does it in a very visually powerful way can also backfire.”

Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsAndCars.org, also sees good and bad in the videos.

On one hand, these videos help spread the word about the dangers of being left in a hot car. But Fennell worries that many people think accidentally leaving a child in a car “just happens with bad parents.”

“I worry there’s no talk about prevention,” she said. “And the worst thing you can think is that this can’t happen to you, because it can happen to anyone.”

Fennell is focusing on getting signatures on an online White House petition that’s also being pushed by the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and several other groups. The petition (on the home page of KidsAndCars.org ) demands funding for development of innovative technology that would be required in all vehicles (or in all child-safety seats) to prevent youngsters from being left alone in cars. Per Obama administration policy, they’ll need 100,000 signatures by Aug. 12 to elicit a response from the White House.

“Look at vehicles,” Fennell said. “If you don’t put on your seat belt, there is a buzz reminder. If you leave your keys in the ignition, you get a warning. If you are low on gas, a light usually comes on.”

To reduce hot-car deaths, Fennell envisions technology such as an alarm going off if the driver walks away while a child is still in the car. As a mother, I can’t help but think this is worth exploring.

I’ve gone back to look at Bartley’s video, which has already garnered more than 1 million views. Before the era of social media, we would express our fury to family and friends. Now we can participate in a collective outrage, which can be cathartic.

“The video of Terry Bartley sweating and suffering allows us to experience the tragedy on a more visceral level,” said David Ryan Polgar, a Connecticut-based lawyer and educator who speaks and writes about our relationship to technology. “Video is often more powerful than words, and our smartphones are giving us an incredibly powerful tool that is then uploaded to a medium built for sharing.”

Rachel Franklin of Acworth, mother of a newborn girl and 3-year-old boy, couldn’t look away from the non-stop coverage of Cooper Harris’ death.

“Maybe because Cooper looks like my son and is about the same age, I was so anxious at the beginning, thinking about what that poor child went through,” Franklin said. “After the shock wore off a little bit, it was like: What am I going to do about this?”

She said parents shouldn’t believe it can never happen to them. So when she went back to her job recently following maternity leave, she began a new habit of always putting one of her work bags in the back seat next to her children. The idea is that when turning to retrieve her tote for the office, she’ll always see her children’s car seats and check them before she walks away.

Surely we can all take steps to help protect our children or any child from being left to die horrifically in a hot car. And we need not put our own lives in jeopardy to do it.

» HAVE YOUR SAY: How does Terry Bartley's video make you feel? Can you think of better ways to alert parents and guardians of children to the dangers of hot-car deaths? What would you do instead of making a 'hot-car challenge video'? Share your thoughts in the 'Comments' area below.

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