Don't let summer fun turn into disaster – keeping Israel's children safe

The number of children’s deaths from all kinds of accidents in Israel is 30% higher during the summer months compared to during the rest of the year, and 45% of those occur inside the home or nearby.

 ENJOY THE pool, but water safety has its own rules.  (photo credit: FLASH90)
ENJOY THE pool, but water safety has its own rules.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Oh, Israel’s glorious summer! Children’s thoughts turn to having fun, casting away their workbooks and being liberated from tests and homework, while their parents contemplate how to keep them busy when they themselves have to work or are going on vacation (if they can afford it).

Yet summer also brings with it physical dangers and the resulting tragedies; babies and toddlers left in scorching-hot vehicles, road accidents, drowning in swimming pools – from small inflatable ones to large ones in guesthouses, falling from heights, and accidental poisonings. 

The number of children’s deaths from all kinds of accidents in Israel is 30% higher during the summer months compared to during the rest of the year, and 45% of those occur inside the home or nearby.

Nearly all of these calamities – that so often cause the collapse of families – could have been prevented by thinking ahead about possible hazards, setting limits, insisting on protective equipment and observing the law. 

Keeping children from dying in accidents in Israel's summer

“In July and August, we can’t take a vacation from safety and become careless and negligent when our children need extra protection,” said Orly Silbinger, CEO of Israel’s Beterem (Safe Children-Israel organization).

 UNITED HATZALAH in action, rescuing kids left in overheated vehicles. (credit: UNITED HATZALAH‏)
UNITED HATZALAH in action, rescuing kids left in overheated vehicles. (credit: UNITED HATZALAH‏)

“Since the beginning of 2023, six Israeli children have died from drowning, and in the last five years, 138 have drowned and 30% of them have died from it. Drowning is the second leading cause of death in children’s accidents.

“I tell parents: ‘Don’t tell me it won’t happen to your family! Fences and locked gates around pools are a must, and even small inflatable pools must be emptied when not used. Swimming lessons save lives; even one swimming lesson can significantly cut the risk of drowning.” 

Silbinger, an expert in social marketing and management in civil society and a member of Beterem’s founding team since 1996, serves on the Intergovernmental Committee on Cooperation between Government and Civil Society, and is part of the Civic Leadership Advisory Team. Previously, she served as a board member of the international organization Safe Kids Worldwide. 

Every July 1, the kindergarten and school year ends and children are “free,” she said in an interview with the Magazine. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise. If parents of younger children must continue to work, they have to arrange for a responsible person to take care of them. But this is very expensive, and even many families with average incomes can’t afford it.”

She adds that “the weather is hot, and the use of water to cool off swells. If they don’t have the money to take children to public or hotel swimming pools, they may buy a large inflatable one or even a small pool on the balcony for which one doesn’t need a license or a lifeguard. Small kids aren’t afraid of water; it makes them curious. With no gate or fence, it’s open for anyone to jump in.” 

Water safety has its own rules: When going to the beach or the pool, bathe only where there are lifeguards; toddlers until the age of five need constant and direct supervision when in the water – the addictive and omnipresent smartphone must be cast aside. In addition to fences and gates, sensors and alarms should be installed that warn when a child has managed to enter the area of a pool.

PARENTS NEED to be “full-time” guards when their young children are near or in water. Parents should not take it for granted that a lifeguard will be in a hotel or public swimming pool and see that the children are in trouble or save them: 

“Beaches and pools are fun for adults and for children alike, but we have to remember that we have a job. We must observe them from a close distance and be alert. If one has to talk on the phone or feels tired, take the child out of the water or appoint a responsible adult to stand guard,” Silbinger asserted. 

Young children can drown – even in a plastic tub or pail with five to 10 centimeters of water, if their nose and mouth are covered by it. They can’t yell, said the Beterem CEO. Parents may not even know they are there. When underwater, children can’t scream for help; drowning is a quiet death. 

Tzimmers, which is the name in Israel for private vacation cabins, mostly on the grounds of a family home that offer quiet and sometimes luxurious facilities, are rented by many Israeli families in the summer. They generally have swimming pools on the premises. But Silbinger said there is a loophole in the law that does not require fences around them.

“We recommended that every tzimmer that has a swimming pool must be required to have a fence around it and a gate that automatically locks. But the legislation, which would have saved lives, was not passed. We are working on it.”

MOST PARENTS think the home is the safest place for children and that it is possible to leave all but the youngest children alone at home during the summer. When parents have to continue working during the school vacation, many leave young children at home to fend for themselves, or even kids under 10 to take care of their younger siblings. But home is not always the safest place. 

Kitchen countertops are often too low, floors are slippery (especially when wet), microwave ovens are easily accessible, window and balcony railings may be too low or without bars, heavy objects that can be pulled away from the walls can fall on kids, and sofas are placed near open windows. In addition, there are too many toys on the market that can cause harm.

Beterem urges that children under the age of nine must not be left alone at home, as younger ones are unable to identify and assess dangerous situations. Only children who are at least 12 or 14 years old should be permitted to babysit for younger siblings. When leaving a child to watch a younger child, leave emergency numbers and those of neighbors who are at home in a prominent place, and remind the older child to use them if necessary.

Arab Israeli children are three times more liable to die in falling accidents than their Jewish counterparts because infrastructure is generally poor, with no sidewalks and few parks to play in. Haredi children in large families are one-and-a-half times more likely to be hurt in accidents than the general population, as very often, haredi children are instructed to babysit for their younger siblings. Some of them even cross the streets while reading Psalms or other holy books.

Israeli children in the northern region are 2.9 times more likely to be hurt in preventable accidents than those living in the Tel Aviv area. Children in poor families are twice as likely to be injured accidentally than those in the general population.

The use of electric bikes and other speedy vehicles like scooters exposes youngsters to accidents – especially if they are below the legal age of 14, riding illegally on sidewalks, drive faster than 25 kilometers per hour, and are not wearing required protective helmets – is a much greater danger in the summer months, so all hospitals know they will get many more serious cases to treat. 

There are as many as 150,000 electric scooters and bikes in Israel, whose riders make up more than a tenth of hospital admissions for maxillofacial and dental injuries, orthopedic problems, and even brain damage and death. Safety enforcement by the police and local authorities is very poor. 

Social media and Israeli TV shows such as Ninja Israel have spread the children’s “sport” of parkour in which they try to “fly” from point A to point B in the fastest and most efficient way possible. Some daring, unsupervised teens swing, vault, and roll even on urban rooftops. 

OF ALL accidental deaths, leaving young children in boiling-hot vehicles is probably the most devastating, leaving parents and caregivers with guilt and in mourning for the rest of their lives. 

In the summer, when the temperature outside a vehicle left in the shade reaches 29 degrees Celsius, inside, it can reach 70 degrees Celsius, hot enough to fry an egg, said Silbinger:

“A child has no chance to avoid heatstroke. The smaller the child, the greater the danger of heatstroke and death – three to four times more than if an adult who can usually escape is left in a car. In the last few years, there has not been a reduction in cases, but there is a little more awareness.”

The Beterem expert said that “parents are stuck in routines and often are tense, so their alertness is lower. They are on automatic pilot, just as they know what to do when they park their cars. Their brain does things automatically, and they can’t control it.” 

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia study published earlier this year in Accident Analysis and Prevention titled “US Caregivers’ Attitudes and Risk Perceptions towards Pediatric Vehicular Heatstroke: A National Survey,” found that in the US in 2019, 53 children died in hot vehicles.

This was one of the highest US incident rates in 20 years – bringing the total number of pediatric vehicular heatstroke deaths over two decades in that country to more than 900. The problem is a global one, but high summer temperatures in Israel make it more acute here. Most of those polled claimed that in-vehicle heatstroke couldn’t happen in their families. 

Silbinger said that a regulation came into force in Israel in 2021, which states that every car that transports a child under the age of four must install a technological device to raise an alarm when a youngster has been left inside. “The regulation was not canceled, but it is not enforced and most parents don’t even know it exists. The devices are hard to find in stores catering to children’s supplies.”

ELI BEER, founder and president of United Hatzalah – the free, volunteer-based emergency medical services organization in Israel with headquarters in Jerusalem – told the Magazine that “the government doesn’t have a long-term solution for this horrible problem. Younger people born in the age of smartphones are addicted to them and barely look up.

“There must be an information campaign about this in various languages and an official investigation committee to examine why over 1,000 children have been left in vehicles in the last decade, and nearly 50 have died.”

He didn’t think that punishing the parent or other caregiver with a huge fine, or a month in jail would accomplish anything – as causing the death of a child is the greatest punishment. It has been suggested by some that canceling the driving license for five or 10 years of a person who caused a child to die by leaving him in a vehicle could be a significant deterrent. 

“The government can declare that it will provide five solutions within a month, such as stickers near the driver’s side window, a device that automatically opens a window if a child is left inside, as Tesla cars offer, or alarms. This problem must be on the state’s agenda – like preventing a pandemic,” Beer declared. 

Forgetfulness or doing something out of the ordinary, concludes Beer, can result in leaving kids behind in hot cars. “Usually, the wife takes her child to school or kindergarten, but if the husband takes over, he may forget, or the parent may have gotten a phone call and be busy with that. People pay lots of money for a car, so if they have a young child, they must be obligated to take all steps to prevent such catastrophes.” 