People with disability left in hot cars take a back seat

24 January 2018

NSW Ombudsman Michael Barnes issued a strong warning last week after receiving two horrifying reports of people with disability being left alone in hot cars. The risks to these people were serious – “dehydration, heatstroke and even death,” Mr Barnes said.

You wouldn’t treat a dog like this. You wouldn’t treat a child like this. Surely you wouldn’t treat a person with disability or an older person like this.

As hard as it is to believe, people do.

The risks of leaving children and pets in cars on hot days is widely known. By contrast the issue of people with disability – or other vulnerable adults – being left in hot cars receives very little attention.

This is partly because incidents involving vulnerable adults are rarely reported. People don’t give adults sitting in cars a second glance, so many cases of neglect go unnoticed. But even when they are reported they fail to gain attention. Sadly, when the alarm was raised by the Ombudsman this week the only coverage it received in the mainstream media was via the ABC (Carers warned not to leave people with disabilities in hot cars with extreme weekend heat predicted).

This lack of public awareness increases the risk that a busy disability support worker won’t give a second thought to leaving a person locked in a vehicle while they pop into the shops.

Next time you are in a car park remember this. According to a Royal Automobile Club of Queensland study an outside temperature of 32 degrees could see temperatures inside a car climb to 75 degrees in two hours. In one of the cases highlighted by the Ombudsman a person with a disability was locked in a vehicle for up to 50 minutes while the outside temperature was 38 degrees. That person is lucky to be alive.

No doubt if there was a string of heat exhaustion deaths due to people with disability or older people being left in cars there would be an explosion of media. But that is exactly the outcome we need to avoid, and the only way to do so is to generate widespread public awareness of the issue.

A person responsible for leaving someone in a car on a hot day could be sued for negligence. But, unlike for children and pets, there are no criminal laws specifically allowing for prosecutions of people leaving a vulnerable adult in a dangerous situation. There are laws like this for children and animals.

The NSW Government should move on specific legislation to create an offence of leaving a vulnerable person in a dangerous situation. Specific laws help highlight specific safety issues. Laws signal what is not socially acceptable. Prosecutions attract the attention of journalists in court lists and gain media attention.

Right now, the NSW Government should engage in public education to make sure the next headline isn’t about a devastating and preventable fatality.

Please, anyone reading this, pay attention when you pass parked cars. If you see an adult in a car who looks flushed, distressed or dehydrated, check in with them to make sure they are okay. You can’t always tell if somebody has a disability or an underlying health condition, so we need to look out for everyone in our community, not just children and pets.

And, disability service providers, make really sure your staff know that leaving people in locked cars is plain wrong.

By Council for Intellectual Disability CEO Tracy Wright.


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