5-Year-old boy dies in hot car, but his parents aren’t to blame

Aug 25, 2015 at 10:28 a.m. ET

It's nearing the end of summer, and infant hot car deaths are still all over the news.

This tragic story is one you may not expect to hear since it doesn't fit the typical hot car death scenario: A 5-year-old boy with autism died in a hot car on Sunday, not after being left by his parents, but after he climbed into an unlocked vehicle.

The father of young Zachary Elshaarawy of Burleson, Texas, says the boy left the house and climbed into an unlocked car on Sunday, where he was found just before 2 p.m. Zachary was rushed to Fort Worth's Cook Children's Medical Center in critical condition, where he died in the emergency room. Before being found in the car, Zachary had been reported missing for only 15 minutes. Dad Darek Elshaarawy was in the backyard, building a swing set for Zachary on the hot Texas day that reached 97 degrees F by 3 p.m.

This story is difficult to hear because it seems so random and senseless. As parents, we're warned to never, ever leave a child unattended in a hot car — not only is it easy to forget a sleeping baby in the back seat, but warm summer temperatures can rise to dangerous levels when a child is left in an enclosed vehicle for just a few minutes.

More:I left my toddler in a hot car

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a car with the windows up acts like a greenhouse by trapping in sunlight and heat. This means that on a warm to hot day, where outside temperatures reach 80 to 100 degrees F, it's possible for temperatures inside an enclosed vehicle to rise to as much as 131 to 172 degrees F. Providing awareness to prevent pet owners from leaving dogs in hot cars, the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that a mere 10 minutes spent in a car on a 95-degree day could bring temperatures to 114 degrees F. At 20 minutes, the interior temperature of the car could rise to 124 degrees F.

Spending a few minutes in an enclosed, hot car on a 97-degree day cost this young boy his life, yet it's something we don't often hear about on the news. Mostly, headlines are vague and ominous — implying that a parent who forgot a child in the back seat on the way to work could be to blame for their death.

More: 5 Simple reminders to prevent kids from being left in hot cars

But what about the kids like Zachary, who wander out of the house and get trapped in a hot car on a summer afternoon? These tragedies happen more often than we think. Car safety advocate nonprofit Kids and Cars warns parents that hiding in a car is a perfectly innocent playtime behavior for young children playing hide-and-seek. Kids don't understand that it can be dangerous to hide in a trunk or another part of a vehicle where they can easily get stuck as temperatures rise. Out of the estimated 600 children who have died in hot cars since 1998, an estimated 32 percent of the deaths were caused by a child getting into the car on their own, where they were trapped in the heat.

More: Why the toddler who died in a hot car in Georgia haunts us

The hot car campaign is working — with one big blind spot. It's been drilled into us to never, ever leave a child in a hot vehicle. A company has even designed a car seat to alert parents who may accidentally forget. But there's still more we can do to protect curious kids like Zachary, who get into a hot car when backs are turned.

Kids and Cars urges parents to focus on awareness and planning. Young children shouldn't be left unsupervised for even a few minutes, and car keys should be placed out of reach. When a car isn't in use, in the garage or in the driveway, it should be locked at all times so kids can't get in. When kids are old enough to learn, start the conversation: Talk to kids about hot car safety, and remind them that playing in a car alone is never OK.

The truth is, kids are capable of so much more than we realize. As soon as your child learns to open doors, it's time to make hot car awareness a priority.