Protect Children from Hot Car Dangers: Get Prevention-Smart on Safe Kids Day

May 17th, 2013

by Jan Null,
Certified Consulting Meteorologist,
Golden Gate Weather Services

We’ve all heard about an isolated incident of a child dying in a hot car. However, when put into a nationwide context these cases constitute an epidemic, claiming on average 38 innocent lives every year in the United States. Since 1998, more than 559 infants and children have died horrible deaths due to heatstroke inside hot vehicles. But you can help save precious lives!

Many of these tragedies intersect with the early childhood education and childcare communities. More than half of juvenile vehicular heatstroke fatalities occur when a caregiver is somehow distracted and accidentally leaves a child in a vehicle.  And in nearly half of these cases, the child was supposed to be dropped off at either childcare or preschool. These cases happen to parents, grandparents, siblings, and childcare providers. It is often a matter of a change of routine, where normal patterns of travel and drop-off responsibilities have been altered. Combined with a busy, distracted driver, and a child who may be quiet in the car’s back seat, it can be lethal.

Other circumstances that lead to these heatstroke deaths are children playing in vehicles and children intentionally left in vehicles. In the former, which account for about 29% of cases, children gain access to a vehicle and are subsequently overcome by the heat. In the latter instance comprising nearly one-in-five of the deaths, children are intentionally left in vehicles by a caregiver who has made the decision to run an errand, get their hair done, go to bar or the casino, or otherwise take care of personal business.

How exactly does heatstroke happen in these cases? In the simplest terms, heatstroke describes heat-related illnesses when a body’s temperature exceeds its normal range. If a body is subjected to extreme temperatures, it can overwhelm the body’s ability to cool itself. This is especially true for infants and children whose bodies heat at a rate of three to five times faster than adult. If an individual’s body temperature reaches 104 degrees (the clinical definition for heatstroke) their cooling system is overwhelmed to the point it begins to shut down. A person with heatstroke may experience symptoms that include confusion; faintness; strong and rapid pulse; delirium; hot, dry skin; or even unconsciousness.  Continued exposure to very high temperatures can produce brain damage, and at 107 degrees cells within organs start to die, quickly leading to death.

Even on a cool day, the environment inside a car can quickly reach lethal temperatures. Research published in Pediatrics shows that within 10 minutes a vehicle will warm to almost 20 degrees above the outside air temperature; after 30 minutes it is 34 degrees warmer, and after an hour it plateaus at as much as 45 to 50 degrees higher than the air outside. Consequently, even on a 70-degree day, temperatures can reach readings that may be fatal to an infant or small child. The research also found that “cracking” the windows had little effect on the temperature inside the car.

Every one of these deaths is 100% preventable. Infants and children are the most precious cargo transported in a vehicle, and we should always be cognizant of the potential danger of a child left alone in a car.


Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle. Not even for a minute!

  • Be sure that all occupants leave the vehicle when unloading. Don’t overlook sleeping babies.
  • Always lock your car and ensure children do not have access to keys or remote entry devices.  If a child is missing, check the car first, including the trunk. Teach your children that vehicles are never to be used as a play area.
  • Keep a stuffed animal in the carseat, and when the child is put in the seat, place the animal in the front with the driver. OR, place your purse or briefcase in the back seat as a reminder that you have your child in the car.
  • Make “look before you leave” a routine whenever you get out of the car.

Learn more at my website. And be sure to visit HMHB’s Q&A on this topic, with grieving mom and advocate Kristie Reeves.