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Preventing Hot Car Deaths

Nearly 900 children have died in the past 25 years after being left inside vehicles that got too hot, making pediatric vehicular heatstroke a leading cause of transportation-related death for children in the United States. But it is preventable.

“There is no safe amount of time to leave a child in a vehicle,” says Dr. Sammy L. Turner, an Emergency Department physician at Washington Regional Medical Center. In just 10 minutes on a mild 85-degree day, the temperature inside a vehicle can rise to 104 degrees. Studies show that even leaving windows “cracked open” does not reduce the rate of temperature rise inside the vehicle.

A vehicle’s interior temperatures can quickly turn deadly because of a greenhouse effect that occurs when the sun passes through the windows and heats up interior items like the dashboard and seats. These in turn warm the air inside the car. The temperature of the trapped air rises to as much as 50 degrees higher than the outside air temperature.

In this situation, a child’s body — which overheats 3-5 times faster than an adult’s body — cannot cool itself by the normal process of sweat evaporation and radiation, Dr. Turner says. “If they’re trapped in a car seat and the heat is above skin temperature, they can’t radiate heat away, they actually soak it in.”

While the incidence of pediatric vehicular heatstroke typically peaks in summer, children have died when outside temperatures were as low as 57 degrees. “It’s one of those horrible mistakes that there’s no coming back from,” Dr. Turner says.

Most vehicle heatstroke deaths occur when a child is accidentally left in the car, but more than one-fourth of the deaths result from a child getting into a hot car unsupervised. “Kids have crawled into cars in the driveway or in parking lots,” Dr. Turner says. “They’re playing, they’re acting like they’re mom or dad. They get in, and they can’t get out.”

To help prevent vehicle heatstroke deaths, Dr. Turner offers parents and caregivers these recommendations from the National Safety Council:

  • If you have a change in routine, such as your spouse or parent dropping your child off at childcare instead of you, make sure you and the other person communicate to confirm the drop-off was made.
  • Make it a routine to open the back door of your car every time you park.
  • Put something you will need at your destination in the back seat so you will be sure to open the back door. This could be your cellphone, employee badge, handbag or even your left shoe.
  • Ask your childcare provider to call you if your child hasn’t arrived as scheduled.
  • Keep a stuffed animal in the child’s car seat. Place it on the front passenger seat as a reminder when the child is in the back seat.
  • Set the alarm on your cell phone as a reminder to drop your child off at childcare. Make the alarm sound different from all other alert sounds on your device.
  • Consider a vehicle that offers technology that alerts drivers to check the back seat.
  • Educate everyone who cares for your child about the dangers of the vehicle greenhouse effect.
  • Ensure children do not have access to car keys or key fobs.
  • Teach children that vehicles are not play areas.
  • Teach children to repeatedly honk the horn if they become trapped in a vehicle.

Family pets are also at risk of vehicle-related heatstroke, Dr. Turner says. “Pets and animals get left in cars. People take for granted that their dogs can handle it,” he says. “But they can’t handle it any better than humans can.”