We would all like to think that there is no way we would ever leave our child in a hot car. Unfortunately, it continues to happen with devastating consequences for families. Hot cars and kids left behind leads to multiple child fatalities every year. Research has revealed that there are steps we can take to help prevent this type of tragedy. This article will give you an in-depth understanding of why hot cars are so dangerous for kids and what you can do to protect your child.

Looking for answers

Why do these tragic events occur?  Researcher Jan Null, CCM, Department of Meteorology and Climate Science has been following child mortality rates associated with hot cars since 1998. He has discovered some sobering statistics.

Hot Car Child Mortality Facts (No Heat Stroke)

An average of 38 children under the age of 15 die each year from heatstroke after being left in a vehicle.

  • 938 pediatric vehicular heatstroke deaths for a 25-year period (1998 through 2022) shows the following circumstances:
  • 52.61% – Forgotten by caregiver (496 children)
  • 25.29% – Gained Access on their own (237)
  • 20.28% – Knowingly left by caregiver (190)
  • 1.81% – Unknown (17) 
  • Thursdays and Fridays — the end of the workweek — have had the highest deaths.
  • More than half of the deaths (54%) are children under 2 years old.

Why are hot cars so dangerous for young children?

  • Younger children are restrained in their car seats and cannot get out of the car independently
  • Younger children often fall asleep in the car and become very quiet, increasing the chance an adult could forget them
  • Children are more susceptible to temperature changes and heat up 3-5 times faster than an adult
  • Young children are often unable to communicate when they are feeling hot or uncomfortable, so they may not be able to alert their caregivers to their distress.

Understanding risk factors

  1. Caregiver forgetfulness: The most common cause of children dying in hot cars is when a caregiver forgets that a child is in the car. This can happen due to a change in routine, distraction, or sleep deprivation, among other factors.
  2. Intentional leave-behind: Tragically, some parents or caregivers intentionally leave children in hot cars, either as a form of punishment or neglect.
  3. Lack of awareness: Some caregivers may not be aware of the dangers of leaving a child in a hot car, or may not understand how quickly temperatures can rise inside a parked car.
  4. Mechanical failures: In some cases, a child may be accidentally locked in a car, or the car’s air conditioning may fail, causing the temperature inside the car to rise rapidly.
  5. Inadequate supervision: In some cases, children may be left unattended in a parked car while a caregiver runs errands or completes other tasks, putting them at risk for heatstroke and dehydration.
  6. Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as epilepsy or autism, may make it difficult for a child to communicate or escape from a hot car if they become trapped.
  7. Geographical location: Children who live in areas with hot climates, high humidity, or both, are at a greater risk of being left in hot cars and experiencing heatstroke. For example, states in the southern United States have a higher incidence of hot car deaths.
  8. Time of year: The majority of hot car deaths occur during the summer months when temperatures are at their highest.
  9. Age: Children under the age of 4 are at a higher risk of being left in hot cars and experiencing heatstroke, as they may not be able to communicate or understand the danger of being in a hot car.
  10. Parental lifestyle: Parents or caregivers who lead busy, stressful lives may be more prone to forgetfulness or distraction, increasing the risk of a child being left in a hot car. Similarly, parents who use drugs or alcohol may be at a higher risk of leaving a child in a hot car.
  11. Lack of social support: Parents or caregivers who lack social support or who are struggling with mental health issues may be at a higher risk of forgetting a child in a car or being unable to care for a child properly.
  12. Multiple children: Parents who have multiple children or who are caring for someone else’s child may be at a higher risk of forgetting a child in a car.

What causes hot car death’s in children?

Hot car deaths in children typically occur due to heatstroke, which is a condition that can occur when a person’s body is exposed to high temperatures and is unable to regulate its temperature. When a child is left in a hot car, the temperature inside the vehicle can rise rapidly, putting the child at risk of heatstroke and dehydration.

Heatstroke can cause serious damage to a child’s organs and can be life-threatening if left untreated. Some of the ways in which heatstroke can affect a child’s body include:

  1. Dehydration: Heatstroke can cause a child’s body to lose fluids rapidly, leading to dehydration.
  2. Damage to organs: Heatstroke can cause damage to a child’s organs, including the kidneys, liver, and brain.
  3. Seizures: Heatstroke can cause seizures, which can be dangerous and require immediate medical attention.
  4. Coma: In severe cases, heatstroke can cause a child to go into a coma.
  5. Death: If not treated promptly, heatstroke can be fatal, particularly in young children who are more vulnerable to heatstroke.
The sun shines brightly with an outdoor thermometer in the foreground. Hot cars and kids left unsupervised lead to deadly consequences.

Critical Information: Understanding cars and heat

Even in mild temperatures, cars can heat up very quickly. This creates an extremely dangerous environment for children left inside. In fact, a car’s temperature can rise by 20 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius) in just 10 minutes. This can happen even when the outside temperature is only 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius).

The science behind hot cars

Here’s how it works: when sunlight enters a car, it is absorbed by the seats, dashboard, and other surfaces. These surfaces then emit that energy as heat, which is trapped inside the car. As the temperature inside the car rises, the air becomes hot and dry.

The greenhouse effect

Cars act like greenhouses, trapping heat inside and preventing it from escaping. This is known as the “greenhouse effect,” which is why cars can become so hot so quickly, even in moderate temperatures.

Important facts to be aware of (kidsandcars.org)

  • The temperature inside a car can reach 125 in minutes despite having the windows cracked
  • 80% of the increase in inside temperature happens in the first 10 minutes.
  • Children have died from heatstroke in cars when outside temperatures were as low as 60 degrees.

Recognizing Signs and Symptoms of Heatstroke

  1. High body temperature: A child’s body temperature can rise rapidly in a hot car, and may reach 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) or higher.
  2. Red, hot, and dry skin: A child’s skin may become hot and dry to the touch, and may appear flushed or red.
  3. Rapid heartbeat: A child’s heart may beat faster than usual in response to the stress of heatstroke.
  4. Rapid breathing: A child may breathe more quickly than usual, as the body tries to cool itself down.
  5. Headache: A child may complain of a headache or dizziness, as the brain is affected by the high body temperature.
  6. Nausea and vomiting: A child may feel nauseous or vomit due to the stress of heatstroke.
  7. Confusion: A child may become confused or disoriented as the brain is affected by the high body temperature.

What do do if you find a child in a hot car

Finding a child in a hot car is a life-threatening situation. If you do see a child in a hot car, it’s important to act quickly and call for emergency assistance right away. Here are the steps you should take:

  1. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately: Notify the authorities right away so that they can send help to the child as quickly as possible.
  2. Get the child out of the car as soon as possible: If the car is unlocked, try to open the door. Help the child get out even if it means breaking a window. Many states have “Good Samaritan” laws that protect people from lawsuits for assisting in emergency situations.
  3. Provide first aid: If the child is unresponsive, check for signs of breathing and begin CPR if necessary.
  4. Stay with the child: Stay with the child until emergency responders arrive, and follow their instructions.
First Aid while waiting for an emergency responders

While you wait for emergency personnel to arrive, here are some steps you can take to provide first aid to a responsive child with heat stroke:

  1. Move the child to a cooler location: If possible, move the child to a cooler location, such as an air-conditioned building or a shaded area. If you’re outside, you can use a blanket or sheet to create shade.
  2. Remove excess clothing: Remove any excess clothing or items that may be trapping heat and preventing the child from cooling down.
  3. Cool the child down: Use a cool, damp cloth or sponge to cool the child’s skin. You can also use a spray bottle or hose to mist the child with cool water. Avoid using ice water or very cold water, as this can cause shock.
  4. Offer fluids: Encourage the child to drink cool water or a sports drink to replace fluids lost through sweating.
  5. Monitor the child’s condition: Watch the child for signs of improvement or deterioration.

It’s important to remember that time is of the essence when it comes to helping a child in a hot car. The longer a child remains in a hot car, the greater the risk of heatstroke and other life-threatening complications. By taking quick action and calling for emergency assistance, you can help ensure the child receives the help they need to recover.

A dog in a car with a window rolled down. Children and pets should never be left alone in a hot car.

Myths Surrounding Hot Car Safety

Unfortunately, there are several myths surrounding the prevention of children’s hot car deaths. Here are some common myths that should be debunked:

  1. Myth: Leaving the windows cracked open will prevent hot car deaths.

Fact: Leaving the windows cracked open will not prevent hot car deaths. Even with the windows slightly open, the temperature inside the car can still reach dangerous levels quickly.

  1. Myth: It’s safe to leave a child in a car for just a few minutes.

Fact: It’s never safe to leave a child in a car, even for just a few minutes. Temperatures inside a car can rise very quickly, and even a few minutes can be enough to cause heat stroke or other life-threatening complications.

  1. Myth: Only negligent parents leave their children in hot cars.

Fact: Hot car deaths can happen to anyone, regardless of their parenting skills or level of care. It’s important to remember that accidents can happen to anyone, and it’s important to take steps to prevent them from happening in the first place.

  1. Myth: Heat stroke only happens on hot days.

Fact: Heat stroke can happen on any day, even on cooler days.

  1. Myth: It’s safe to leave a child in the car if the air conditioner is on.

Fact: Even if the air conditioner is on, it’s never safe to leave a child in a car. Air conditioners can malfunction or turn off, and the temperature inside the car can still rise quickly.

6. Myth: Older children can always get themselves out of a hot car if they are hot and uncomfortable.

Fact: Children may not be able to get themselves out of a hot car, particularly if they have disabilities that prevent them from unbuckling their seatbelts or opening the car door.

It’s important to be aware of these myths and take steps to prevent hot car deaths from happening in the first place.

The best ways to prevent children’s hot car deaths

  1. Never leave a child unattended in a car, even for a few minutes.
  2. Keep your car locked and secure when it’s parked to prevent children from getting inside on their own.
  3. Always check the back seat before leaving your car, even if you think there’s no way you could have forgotten your child.
  4. Place a reminder item in the front seat of your car, such as a purse or cell phone, to remind you to check the back seat before leaving the car.
  5. Keep car keys and remote entry devices out of reach of children.
  6. Teach your children that cars are not play areas and that they should never play in or around parked cars.
  7. If you see a child alone in a car, call 911 immediately.
  8. Use technology to your advantage. There are apps and devices available that can alert you if you’ve left a child in the car. Some car seat manufacturers also offer car seats with built-in sensors that alert you if your child is still in the seat after you’ve turned off the car.
  9. Be aware of your routine and any changes to it. Hot car deaths often occur when a caregiver’s routine is disrupted or when they are under stress or distracted. Make sure you have a plan in place for dropping off and picking up your child from daycare or school, and be mindful of any changes to your routine.
  10. Keep your car well-maintained. A malfunctioning air conditioning system or a car that overheats can increase the risk of hot car deaths. Regularly check your car’s systems and have it serviced as needed.
  11. Spread awareness about hot car deaths. Talk to friends, family, and colleagues about the risks of leaving children unattended in cars. Encourage them to take action to prevent these tragedies from happening.
  12. Teach children how to honk the horn or turn on hazard lights if they become stuck inside a car.
  13. If a child is missing, immediately check the inside of all vehicles in the area carefully, even if they’re locked. This includes checking the trunk of the car and other storage spaces.

Final Thoughts

Child hot car deaths can be a scary topic for parents to think about. Becoming aware of the dangers of hot cars is the first step in protecting your children. Never leave your child alone in a car, make sure your car is inaccessible to your children, and always check the back seat of your car when leaving it. Keep your kids safe!

Want to know more about how you can keep your kids safe? Check out my articles on fireworks and kids, bike safety, and trampolines.

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