Editor’s note: The Deseret News has partnered with the Utah Department of Health to look at what kills Utah’s kids — and how to keep them safe. Today, Monday and during the next year we will examine the data to help find solutions and strategies to protect Utah’s children.

SALT LAKE CITY - Boaters at American Falls Reservoir in Idaho on Memorial Day will pass by a giant rock and a stand filled with life jackets. They’re free to borrow, but as the message carved on the stone face notes, “It’s only a life-preserver if you have it on.”

Inevitably, someone in the throng of people flocking to the water will have forgotten to bring one. In the joy of playtime, it’s easy to think being careful will be enough.

They are far from alone. And that's the problem.

The 100 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day are the deadliest of the year for children and youths. The spike in motor vehicle crash deaths is so pronounced there are “100 Deadly Days” safety campaigns. Drownings, recreational vehicle accidents, falls while hiking, bike crashes and other warm-weather accidents that result in serious injuries and deaths increase. More children are run over in driveways. Suicide numbers rise.

In 2012, some 13,804 children ages 1-17 died nationwide, 6,941 from unintentional injury, homicide or suicide, many in summer, according to The National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths (NCRPCD). Numbers vary; infants are sometimes categorized separately and their deaths usually result from illness or genetic issues. Age 18 is not always included in childhood counts, though many still attend school and live at home.

Most of the deaths and injuries are preventable, says Utah’s chief medical examiner, Todd Grey.

“Anything you would term ‘accident,’ that’s a preventable death. There’s nothing inevitable about situations that arise that wind up with a kid dead,” he said.

People can take steps to improve the odds their children will get through the summer months without being seriously harmed or killed.

Many are simple, inexpensive steps that save lives: adequate supervision during family outings, always wearing seat belts and helmets and respecting one’s limits in water and at altitudes.

Crash course in danger

Most children weather the season well, aside from a sunburn or skinned knee. But when a child dies, families change forever.

Melissa Brown lives every parent’s nightmare: figuring out how to carry on after her only daughter, Mandi, 16, died from injuries sustained in a car crash on June 28, 2013.

Mandi and her close friend, Tyler, were ejected from a pickup driven by a friend. They were making a quick trip to Idaho from Brigham City, Utah, and none of them were wearing seat belts when the truck rolled on I-15. Tyler, 16, died at the scene and Mandi a few days later. The driver, 18, broke his back.

“I don’t want any family to go through what we go through. It’s every day. I miss her. We miss her, you know. She’d be going on 19. Who knows what she’d be doing,” Melissa Brown said recently.

In 2012, some 2,274 children ager 17 or younger died in motor vehicle-related incidents nationally — including kids who were driving, riding, walking or biking.

Lt. Lee Perry of the Utah Highway Patrol, who serves in the Utah Legislature representing the rural area where he was born and has lived most of his life, recently led a successful effort to pass a primary seat belt law.

Melissa Brown and Tyler's mother, Kelli Stuart, testified for the bill. Utah had a seat belt law for children and drivers under age 19, but was one of 16 states without such a law for everyone.

Perry says the new law will save youths because children tend to do what their parents do.

"When drivers ride unbuckled, 76 percent of the children also drive unbuckled,” Perry said. “Every time I see kids bouncing around in the back of a car and I go to pull them over, the driver’s not wearing a seat belt. Hardly ever."

Experts say seat belts and child restraints are the crucial tool to stop children from dying or being injured in a motor vehicle. Child safety seats cut fatal injuries by 71 percent for the littlest passengers, under age 1, and by 54 percent for those to age 4. Booster seats protect children ages 4-8, but the National Transportation and Safety Administration says just six percent of children in the age group and 40-80 pounds weight class use one.

For teens, danger often stems from the newly acquired ability to drive. Reckless enthusiasm and distractions often outpace experience and judgment. Injuries and deaths increase when friends ride with young drivers. Alcohol, unwillingness to wear seat belts and late-night driving greatly increase risk.

Teresa Brechlin, Utah Health Department violence prevention program manager, said children who are taught young to always wear seat belts are more likely to do so their entire lives. “If they’re used to doing it, they will put it on even with friends.”

Brechlin coordinates the team that reviews every child death in Utah. She recommends hammering home no-texting, no-talking-on-cell-phones messages.

Rural risk

Kids in rural parts of the country are especially vulnerable to risks that kill or injure young people in summer.

They’re less likely to wear seat belts. They may live in remote locations so they tend to drive more. They’re sometimes injured by farm equipment. Grey said that often involves an activity inappropriate for the child’s age, like riding a tractor while a relative drives.

When police notify a family of a death or serious injury, there’s an added layer of grief in small, rural towns where everyone knows everyone.

“It’s very personal,” says Perry. “That is really hard for us in law enforcement, probably the hardest thing we have to do.”

Perilous water

Brothers Aaron and Jared Hale, their uncle Darrel Shappart and a friend, Stephen Verbeck, drowned in American Falls Reservoir on an August day in 2010 while some of their young children watched helplessly from a boat. Later, the Hales’ sister, JoAnne Duke, and other family members wanted to do something positive.

When Idaho Search and Rescue approached them with the idea of sponsoring life jacket stations, they leapt at it. They stock seven stands in Idaho and several in Utah, including two at Willard Bay that are co-sponsored with the family of another young man who drowned, Brigham Bradley.

Besides the life jackets, they provide safety notes explaining the correct way to wear one and pointing out that 80 percent of drownings are preventable with a life jacket.

Nationally, 851 children age 17 or younger drowned in 2012, most of them boys.

Very young children drown in a bathtub or a bucket, often unattended. Toddlers are more likely to perish at well-attended family gatherings near water, usually a swimming pool or a stream.

Everyone assumes someone else is paying attention.

The other kind of drowning tends to be teenagers who over-estimate what they can do in the water or who don’t realize they’re swimming in unsafe places.

“What they’re attempting to do is well beyond their physical abilities. So you’ve got a couple of teenage kids who say ‘Ah, let’s swim across this arm of the lake.’ One of them makes it and one of them doesn’t,” said Grey.

Not using personal flotation devices, or using them the wrong way, is sometimes a factor, according to the NCRPCD. That's true of alcohol use by the swimmer or a supervising adult. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 70 percent of the time when an adolescent or adult dies playing in water, alcohol is involved. One in five boating deaths include alcohol. Alcohol impairs balance, coordination and judgment; heat and sun amplify those effects.

Drowning can be difficult to recognize because it doesn’t look like what people see in the movies. “It’s definitely silent,” said Sue Mackie, executive director of U.S. Swim Schools, headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona. “Someone slips under, not flailing or waving arms. People think if someone’s in trouble they will holler for help. That’s not the case.”

When Mackie was growing up in Laurens, Iowa, everyone had to leave the community pool for a few minutes every hour. She thinks that’s a good idea for families: Gather periodically to rest and do a head count. Also make sure there’s a designated “water watcher” on alert for trouble. Adults can take turns. Someone should know CPR.

Mackie recommends teaching children to swim when they are very young, but also teaching them they need permission to enter any water.

Parents should check kids’ skills and see how they’re doing, she said. Kids who were swimming well last summer may be rusty.

A moment’s inattention

KidsAndCars.org tracks vehicle-related children's deaths that occur out of traffic. In 2014, those included 67 backovers, 60 frontovers and 30 heatstrokes, among others. Scores more are injured, some permanently, said spokeswoman Amber Rollins.

Nearly 40 young kids die on average annually in a hot car. The CDC's review of l,636 child-vehicle deaths over 14 years found 53 percent were “forgotten” by a caregiver, 29 percent were children playing in a vehicle and 17 percent were left there intentionally by an adult.

People pass harsh judgment on parents who forget a child in a vehicle, Rollins said. They don’t realize how easy it is to make that mistake.

A SafeKids.org survey found nearly one-fourth of parents with a child younger than 3 has forgotten the child in a car. It’s usually a result of a break in routine and a parent being frazzled, Rollins said, like when dad fills in to drop the baby at daycare. Cars tend to lull babies to sleep. Habit takes over. The baby is quiet and he forgets.

She recommends placing a purse, briefcase or cell phone with the baby, something you need to bring with you when you leave the vehicle. Others suggest taking off a shoe and putting it near the baby; you won't leave the car without your shoe or the baby. It’s also wise to ask daycare providers to call if the child isn’t dropped off.

Rollins said KidsAndCars helped get regulations forcing automakers to design cars with backup cameras starting in 2018. In an experiment with a SUV to see how many kids they could pile behind the vehicle before the driver could see anyone, dozens of kids sat on the ground, invisible.

Here’s a typical backover: A child, usually age 2 or 3, sneaks out because he or she wants to say bye-bye to a loved one who's leaving. In 70 percent of backovers, a close relative is responsible for the death.

Frontovers happen that way, too, and are more common. Rollins said most vehicles have a blind spot in front. Many deaths could be prevented by walking around the vehicle before pulling out.

Less common, but not less deadly

Burns, carbon monoxide poisoning, and boating-related injuries all go up in summer. Though they don’t always kill, they turn life upside-down.

Prevention tips include:

• Use precautions around fire and fireworks. Teach kids those can be dangerous.

• Make sure heat sources are properly vented when camping to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

• Don’t let kids play in the water near the back of the boat when the motor’s running. They can be overcome with carbon monoxide, lose consciousness and drown. Even when the boat’s in neutral, make the kids go elsewhere.


Suicide is a leading cause of young deaths. No one’s sure why it's more common in spring and summer. The range is usually ages 10-18, but officials occasionally see suicides as young as 8. It's seven times more common at 15 and older. Prevention is multi-pronged, from responsible news reporting, since suicide among youths appears “contagious,” to making sure guns and other lethal means are locked away.

The American Academy of Pediatrics lists suicide as a top-three cause of death for those ages 13-19. When a gun is involved, there’s little chance to save the child, it says.

“It seems to be a very impulsive thing,” said Brechlin of suicides, “so if the means are not there, then you have a better chance of extending life.”

Parents who believe children don’t know where the gun is kept or how to open the gun safe probably delude themselves, she said.

The academy, working with law enforcement sources, offers suggestions:

• Be aware if something is bothering a child and deal with it appropriately, including getting professional help.

• Keep guns unloaded and locked up or secured with a trigger lock. Store bullets separately.

• Don’t give teens keys to access guns or bullets.

• Parents who know a child is depressed or has severe mood swings should remove guns from the home.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco