Dangers of being left unattended in a hot vehicle
Summer is in full swing in New York State and while the season brings a host of fun outdoor activities, it also introduces heat-related hazards for individuals receiving services. Vulnerable populations, like those we’re here to protect, are particularly susceptible to higher temperatures, especially those who require vehicle transportation.
The Justice Center’s 24-hour abuse and neglect hotline receives numerous reports of adults and children who needed assistance to exit a vehicle but were inadvertently left behind—many in the height of the summer months. Thankfully, these reported incidents rarely result in serious cases, however; whether you are a driver, transportation aide, service provider, or agency – you have a role to play in preventing needless harm from occurring in these instances. Let’s review at a sample scenario.
A close call
Ann-Marie is an adult who lives with a significant intellectual disability. She resides in a group home in upstate New York and requires supervision and support from her caregivers to ensure her safety. Ann-Marie regularly attends a day habilitation program. She and her peers are transported to the program in a 12-passenger van. One July morning, Ann-Marie was accidentally left behind in the closed van for an hour in the program’s parking lot. The temperature outside was almost 76 degrees. Despite rising temperatures inside the vehicle, staff found Ann-Marie before she suffered any harm.
How does this happen?
Upon arriving at the day program, the driver, the only staff member assigned to the group, failed to keep the group together or to make sure all the individuals safely exited the vehicle. It was raining hard that morning, so instead of parking the van and going to the building as a group, the driver pulled up to the program entrance and directed his passengers to exit the van there so they would remain dry. Without ever leaving the vehicle, the driver casually observed the individuals file out of the van and run inside. The van appeared empty from the rear-view mirror. No formal headcount, seat check, or other steps were taken to ensure that everyone had disembarked at the entrance. The driver parked and locked the van - leaving behind Ann-Marie who was lying down and asleep on the farthest backseat, out of view.
How do we fix it?
It’s important to note that most incidents reported to the Justice Center occurred at agencies that already had significant protocols in place. Some trends we’ve noticed could be improved upon include:
- Increase supervisory attention to staff safety practices
- Regularly evaluate whether systems are working
- Consider adding environmental controls to help prevent recurrence – ex: have a physical item in the back of the van that is required to be moved to the front upon exit, try an alarm, or switch to windows without a tint
- Always keep the group together and maintain supervision assignments
- Follow handoff procedures between staff
- Follow protocol as written to reduce the risk of unintended consequences
Looking for seasonal content? We have a helpful infographic that explores heat dangers in a quick-hitting format. Click below to download.