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What Should You Do If You Discover A Baby Alone In A Hot Car?

What should your first move be when you see a child sitting in a hot car? Are there legal ramifications of breaking a window to free a trapped child? What the experts advise.

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Cute baby girl is sleeping in the car on child safety seat
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You hear about it all too often on the news: a child inadvertently forgotten in their car seat while parents went to work or ran in the grocery store, killed by heatstroke while their parents were tragically unaware their baby was in danger. You'd like to think it would never happen to you, but we've all been overworked, overwhelmed, and overtired, making us incapable of remembering everything and carrying the mental load. All of that to say, as heartbreaking and unthinkable as it is, it can happen. And knowing the dangers of a hot car, it would be alarming for anyone who happens to stumble upon a child alone in a car. But what should you do if you ever find yourself in that terrifying situation? Could you get in trouble, legally, if you take drastic measures like breaking out the car's windows?

With so many factors at play, it can be hard to know what you should do when you see a child (or dog, even) alone and in a hot car. Your first instinct is to call 9-1-1 or possibly break open a window. Most witnesses will often second-guess themselves, though. What if you just don't hear the engine running? What if it's just a very realistic-looking doll? Can you afford to fix a car window if you break it? Some people might tell you that you should mind your own business.

But when a life is on the line, you need to feel confident making a split-second decision. To that end, here's what experts advise.

Never leave a living being in a closed-up, turned-off car.

Let's start with a reminder: Even when it doesn't feel particularly hot while walking outside, a closed-up car can quickly heat up to unsafe temperatures.

Good Calculators has helped people across the globe calculate the average temperature inside a car, depending on the temperature outside the vehicle and how long it's been sitting. Even if a car was just parked in 85-degree heat, it will still quickly warm up to the same temperature as outside. After just 10 minutes, however, the car has heated up to a stifling 104. You probably already know that body temperatures over 104 can lead to brain damage or death.

Of course, with temperatures rising around the world, 85 degrees outside has become pretty mild. When temps peak at 90 or 100 degrees, the temperature inside cars becomes deadly even faster.

What should you do when you find a baby or child alone in a car?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) has clear and urgent guidance on what to do if you witness a child alone inside a car. Their first tip is don't try to wait until someone returns to their car. Instead, move into action immediately and assess if the child is conscious/responsive. You can do this by knocking loudly on the window or yelling.

If the child is responsive:

  • Stay with the child.
  • Call for help.
  • Send someone to look for the driver or have a nearby building page for the owner.

If the child is non-responsive:

  • Call 9-1-1.
  • Break the window and retrieve the child.
  • Spray the child with cool water and follow any other life-saving measures given by the 9-1-1 operator.

Once you've removed a child from a hot vehicle, look for signs of heat stroke. According to the NHTSA, this might include:

  • Red, hot, and moist or dry skin
  • No sweating
  • Strong, rapid pulse or slow, weak pulse
  • Nausea
  • Confusion or strange behavior

How can you avoid landing in this scenario yourself?

Feeling overwhelmed or forgetful already? Relatable. Mamas are responsible for a lot. You'd like to think you'd never, ever forget your child in the car — but accidents can happen, especially when they've kept you up all night and have finally fallen asleep in the backseat of a car. You can do a couple of things to make sure you don't forget your babe, though.

  1. Put your purse on the backseat next to the car seat. If you're a new mom, you're more accustomed to grabbing your purse than your baby. This is an easy way to remind you to take both with you.
  2. Try the Post-it or rubber band trick. Sometimes having a visual reminder can help. Next time you pop your baby in the car seat, try putting a post-it over your radio, horn, or air conditioning button. Or try that age-old "string around your finger" trick.
  3. Invest in an AirTag. Want to feel a little high-tech? AirTags are only about $20-40 each. They're registered to your phone or device and named whatever you name them. You can purchase aftermarket silicone bracelets and tags for dog collars. You can even slice a small slit in the tongue of a shoe and cram it in. Whenever you leave the predetermined "range," your phone will notify you that you've "left behind" that specific AirTag. For instance, if your toddler is wearing an AirTag bracelet when you drop her off at preschool, your phone will chime before you even leave the parking lot. Your screen will notify you, "Riley was left behind." Imagine all the lives that could be saved if your phone alerted you that you'd left behind your baby before you even smiled at the Walmart greeter!

Remember, hot car deaths don’t just occur in summer months or “hot” climates.

It’s easy to conflate hot car deaths with the hottest months of the year: summer. That’s a dangerous assumption to make, though. While hot car deaths are more prevalent in the summer months, they can occur anytime. Did you know a child can suffer from heatstroke in temps as low as 57 degrees outside? That, coupled with how fast a car can heat up and how much faster kids overheat than adults (three to five times), means there is no room for complacency.

In addition to heat stroke and exhaustion, there are still plenty of risks of leaving your child in the car during non summer months. It can result in hypothermia, which is when your body loses heat faster than it produces, which could end in the decay or death of tissue. Your child could suffer from frostbite or carbon monoxide poisoning.

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