Fatal danger: Preventing kids from dying in hot, closed cars


SILVER SPRING, Md, July 13, 2013 – Every year children die tragically because they are accidentally left in hot cars. This year is no exception.  Since May, 20 children have already died from being left unattended in vehicles. By comparison, kidsandcars.org report that on average 38 children die each year under the same circumstances.

Many of these cases were parents or care takers who forgot that the children were in the vehicles and left them for extended periods of time. But the time does not have to be that long for a child to succumb to the excessive heat that builds up inside a vehicle. An article published in Pediatrics in July of 2005 found that with an external temperature of 86°F the temperature inside can rise to as high as 154°F.  The researchers found that the temperature rose an average of 3.2°F every five minutes, with 80% of the maximum temperature being reached within just 30 minutes.  Even at a “cool” 72°F, the vehicle reached a whooping 117°F.  They even tested the effects of leaving the car windows cracked one and a half inches. The results were negligible.

High temps outside translated into even higher temps in a parked car. Photo by Joseph Novak.

Left in these conditions, a child’s body temperature soars resulting in hyperthermia, or an abnormally high body temperature, which can result in death. While the excess heat can affect anyone, infants can succumb even quicker due to their inability to regulate their body temperature. Their smaller body mass also means that they can get hotter quicker than a larger person.

While it seems impossible for most parents to comprehend forgetting that their children are in the car, this happens to parents each year. Sometimes it is because it is a break from their routine, sometimes it can be due to exhaustion or even a distraction, like a phone call. Common suggestions to prevent the same thing from happening to you is to placed your purse, cell phone, work ID badge, or other item you cannot leave the car without in the back seat with your child.  Alternatively, you can place your child’s favorite stuffed animal in the passenger seat next to you when your child is in the vehicle, passing it off to  the youngster when he leaves the vehicle.  If you have you child in day care, ask the care provider to call you if the child is 10 minutes late, that way if an oversight does happen it can be caught before it turns into a tragedy. Also try to get in the habit of looking before you leave the vehicle.  A quick glace in the backseat as you walk past the rear of your vehicle can make all the difference.

On average there are 38 children who die in hot cars every year. Photo by Suenamuy87 via Wikimedia.

Also, while almost three quarters of these deaths are in children under the age of 3, older children can die under the same circumstances. A seven-year old who falls asleep in the back seat on the way to day care can just as easily be forgotten as a napping infant or toddler. Older children can also become victims if they get trapped in a car while playing. A number of children die each year from playing unattended inside.

In fact, this accounts for almost 30% of child deaths from being left in a hot vehicle since 1998. These numbers also tend to include slightly older, more curious children who happen to go exploring in Mom or Dad’s car. Advice to avoid this situation is to always supervise you children, check your vehicle before locking it, and to never leave your vehicle unlocked. Aside from accidently locking themselves inside, young child might also shift a car into neutral or release an emergency break, both of which could cause other serious problems.

While these deaths are tragic, they are preventable. Hopefully, with a little understanding of the heat dynamics inside a car and a little precaution, you can help keep the numbers from rising.


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