Every year around this time, you hear stories about children being left in hot cars. Sometimes — often because of the kindness of concerned, observant strangers — they are rescued before anything too terrible happens. But other times, the most awful tragedy strikes a family, and they lose their child due to heatstroke.
In fact, since 1998, when records of hot car deaths began to be recorded, 712 children have died. All of their deaths were preventable.
We don’t like to think about this or talk about it. Many of us tend to think, “Oh, there is no way this would happen to me! How could I possibly forget my child in the car?” and we are quick to assign harsh judgement and ridicule. But almost no parent who left their child in a hot car thought it could happen to them. And that is why we absolutely need to talk about it. (And it should be mentioned that there are some brave families who have come out to tell their stories so that they might spare another family from experiencing the same fate they did.)
Let’s start with some need-to-know facts about hot car deaths. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), about 37 children die in hot cars each year. That may not seem like a lot, but the majority of the deaths are concentrated between Memorial Day and Labor Day, with about 2 to 3 deaths per week. 87% of kids who die in hot cars are 3 years old or younger (this statistic alone brought tears to my eyes).
Now here’s the kicker: Research shows that the majority — more than half — of hot car deaths happen when a parent or guardian unintentionally forgets their child in the car. Another common, but lesser-known cause is when kids play in (or get into) cars unattended. This accounts for about 28% of cases, according to NSC.
The number of kids who are intentionally left in hot cars accounts for the fewest number of cases — about 17%. And these cases aren’t necessarily done with malicious intent. A parent often just doesn’t realize how dangerous even a few minutes in a hot car can be for a young child.
Listen up: The inside of a car is about a whole 20 degrees hotter than the temperature outside and can rise to that amount in only 10 minutes. That means that even on a relatively mild summer day — say 75 degrees — your car can heat up to almost 95 degrees in minutes.
Heatstroke starts to occur when a child’s body temperature reaches 104 degrees, acccording to WebMD, and symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, and loss of consciousness. Death can occur if heatstroke symptoms worsen and are left untreated.
It should be noted that kids’ bodies tend to heat up 3 to 5 times faster than adults, as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) points out. So you absolutely shouldn’t judge how hot it is based on how you feel. The AAP also explains that opening the window slightly doesn’t make a difference in terms of the overall heat of your car.
Given how dangerous this is, you might wonder how a parent could make such a grave mistake. Usually the reasons are simpler and more relatable than you might realize. When children are forgotten in the car, it’s often because a parent is distracted, overwhelmed, or stressed — and their sleeping baby or toddler didn’t make a peep to alert them. It might also be because of a change in routine, where a parent is driving a different route at a different time or transporting different people.
Other times, it’s just that a parent hasn’t been properly educated about the risks and lets their child play unattended in a car in the heat or leaves their child in the car for “just a minute” to get something from the store, not realizing how quickly things can heat up and become dangerous.
So how can we prevent these unacceptable tragedies from happening to our children? Noheatstroke.org has some excellent safety recommendations. Besides never leaving your child unattended in a car (no, not even for a minute!) in the heat and always locking your car so your kids can’t get into it without you knowing, there are a couple of tricks to help.
You can leave your purse, wallet, or phone in the backseat as a reminder to go in the backseat before locking up your car and heading to your destination. Another cool suggestion is to have a stuffed animal or doll that you leave in the car seat when your child isn’t in it. Then when you buckle your child in, you put the stuffed animal or doll in the front seat as a reminder.
You can also set up alerts or reminders on your phone or have a setup with your day care to call you any day that your child doesn’t show up. Technology is on top of this issue as well: There are a few examples of car seats on the market that can communicate with you via your cell phone or your car’s data port to tell you that you’ve left your child in the car.
Last, but not least, if you see a child locked in a car, even if it’s only a little warm outside, please call 911 ASAP. And if the situation warrants it, break into the car and rescue the child. It truly take a village, and it is our responsibility to look out for one another and not be afraid to step in when the situation warrants it.