How to Prevent the Danger to Kids in Hot Cars

Babies and Children at Risk Unattended in Hot Cars Even on Mild Days

A baby left in a hot car can quickly get too hot and suffer heat stroke.
A baby left in a hot car can quickly get too hot and suffer heat stroke, which can lead to a high fever, dehydration, seizures, stroke and death. Photo by Vincent Iannelli, MD

You want to keep your baby and kids safe in the car, but one of the hidden risks is for a child to be left or trapped in a hot car. An average of 37 kids die from being in a hot car each year in the U.S., in some cases on a relatively mild day with only 70 F temperatures.

As a parent, you can only begin to imagine the heartbreak over these tragedies. The majority of deaths were completely unintentional, with the child unknowingly left in the car or the child getting into the car on their own.

Situations in which kids get hurt in hot cars include:

  • Infants and toddlers are simply forgotten in their car seat
  • Infants and toddlers are intentionally left in a hot car
  • Toddlers or preschoolers sneak into the car to play and can't get out
  • Kids get trapped in the trunk

What's the Danger of a Hot Car for a Baby or Child?

On a typical summer day, the temperature inside a car (even with the windows rolled down a little) can quickly rise above 120 to 140 F. Even on a relatively mild day, the temperature inside a car can get above 100 F. At those temperatures, kids are at great risk for heat stroke, which can lead to a high fever, dehydration, seizures, stroke, and death.

If you don't think that it can happen to you or your kids, consider these descriptions from the death certificates of the more than 700 children who have died in hot cars since 1998. They were published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

  • A 9-month-old died after being "left strapped in child safety seat in a sweltering minivan for two hours - misunderstanding between child's parents resulted in the child being left alone in the van; one parent believed infant was at home with other."
  • A 6-month-old "baby died when accidentally left in hot car for three hours, died when outside 90 F temperatures rose to 130 F inside the closed car, parents thought the other had carried the baby from the car to crib."
  • A 34-month-old "toddler who recently learned how to open a car door apparently climbed inside family station wagon while parent and sibling were in house."
  • A 23-month-old died when a "relative babysitting child, put child in car for trip to store, went back in house having forgotten something, was distracted by something on television, sat on couch to watch, fell asleep, woke up two hours later."
  • A 2-year-old died after a "parent left child in car after returning home from errand - was left for more than an hour."
  • A 2-year-old "child apparently slipped away from parents and siblings, fell asleep atop blanket in unlocked car in driveway of home, oldest sibling found child 40 minutes later."

Remember, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "a locked car sitting in the summer sun quickly turns into an oven," and, "temperatures can climb from 78 F to 100 F in just three minutes, to 125 F in 6-8 minutes."

Hot Car Safety Tips

To keep your kids safe:

  • Look Before You Lock: Make it a habit that you check the back seat each time you get out of the car before you lock the door, even if you aren't transporting your child. Doing this every time will instill the habit.
  • Place a small toy or colorful note in your child's car seat when it's empty. Move it to your dashboard when you place your child in the car seat. This will help remind you that you have a child in the back seat.
  • Get your kids out of the car first, and then worry about getting the groceries, etc., out of the car when you get home.
  • Don't leave your child in a car, which can quickly heat up, especially on a hot, sunny day.
  • Always lock your car and secure the keys so that your kids can't get to them at home.
  • Warn your kids about playing in the car by themselves without adult supervision.
  • Install a trunk release mechanism, so that they can't get trapped in the trunk.
  • Make sure that child car providers and day care workers have a plan to ensure that kids aren't left in the day care providers car or van
  • Apps and sensor devices have been developed, but they should only be used in addition to developing habits that will help prevent these tragedies.

    Also, be on alert for cars that might have an unattended child left inside. If you see a child alone in a car, be sure to call 911 and help make sure the child gets out as soon as possible.

    And when a child is missing, in addition to checking the backyard pool and any other bodies of water, be sure to check inside the car and trunk of any nearby vehicles.

    Kids in Cool Cars Also at Risk

    The danger of being left alone isn't limited to kids getting overheated. Simply leaving the car running and the air conditioning on doesn't make your child any safer, even if it is just for a few minutes. Your child might be abducted, put the car into drive, or even get caught in a closing power window. So use the drive-through if it is available or take your kids inside, even if you will just be a few minutes. Don't leave your kids alone in the car. It just isn't safe. Besides that simple fact, 20 states have laws against leaving children in vehicles unattended.

    A Word from Verywell

    The majority of deaths and injuries to children in hot cars are unintentional and can happen even in the most caring families. You can develop habits that will reduce your risks. Never leave a child unattended in the car, even for a couple of minutes. Always check the back seat before you lock your car, even when you haven't been transporting your child. Lock your car every time you leave it, even when it is in your driveway or garage. Find a secure place to store your car keys, so your child won't have access to them. If you see a child trapped in a hot car, take immediate action.

    Sources:

    Fact Sheet - Heatstroke Deaths of Children in Vehicles. NoHeatStroke.org. http://noheatstroke.org/.

    Heatstroke Fact Sheet. Kidsandcars.org. http://www.kidsandcars.org/files/pdfupload/heat-stroke-fact-sheet.pdf.

    Tips to Avoid Child Heatstroke. SaferCar.gov. https://www.safercar.gov/parents/InandAroundtheCar/Tips-Avoid-Heatstroke.htm

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