Never Leave Your Child Alone in a Vehicle

Children are Dying from Heatstroke – Even When it’s not that Hot Outside

Amy Artuso is a home and community safety subject matter expert at NSC and a member of the Speakers Bureau led by Safe Kids Worldwide on this topic.

​Blog – Children and vehicles can be a deadly combination. Heatstroke, also known as hyperthermia, is the leading cause of non-crash, vehicle-related deaths for children.

As of May 25, nine children have died this year in the U.S. from being left in a vehicle – four during May alone. Even more alarming, the annual average number of deaths is 37 – about one child every nine days.

Last year, deaths were at an all-time low of 24 children. While we don't have scientific evidence to support the reasons for this decline, it may be a result of national efforts to increase public awareness about heatstroke and how to prevent it.

After a child dies from heatstroke, a common question is "How could someone let this happen?" A visit to www.noheatstroke.org provides some insight. Of the 661 children that died as a result of vehicular heatstroke between 1998 and 2015, 54% were reportedly forgotten by a caregiver, 29% were playing in an unattended vehicle, 17% were intentionally left in a vehicle by an adult, and for 1% the circumstances are unknown. This does not include the significant number of near misses, when children are rescued before a fatality.

Safety professionals emphasize several points about vehicular heatstroke:

  1. It can happen to anyone, even "good" parents. For more information, consider reading the Pulitzer Prize winning article by Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post in 2009, Fatal Distraction.
  2. A child can die even in cooler weather, during winter months and in northern states. The temperature inside the vehicle is not managed by cracking open windows. Learn more about vehicle heating dynamics in this study published in Pediatrics.
  3. A child's body temperature increases three to five times faster than an adult. The body's cooling system is typically overwhelmed at 104 degrees, and death can occur at 107 degrees. According to the study published in Pediatrics, on average the temperature inside a vehicle increases 19 degrees in the first 10 minutes and 29 degrees in the first 20 minutes at varying temperatures outside the vehicle. This supports the recommendation to NEVER leave a child alone in a vehicle, not for a minute – even if the vehicle is running with air conditioning on.

Additional Safety Recommendations:

  • If you see a child unattended in a vehicle call 911
  • If a child is missing, check nearby pools first and then vehicles, including trunks
  • Establish a routine to "Look Before You Lock"
  • Put something you will need at your final destination in the back seat 
  • Teach children that vehicles are not play areas
  • Always lock your vehicle when not in use
  • Keep keys and remote devices out of children's reach
  • Establish a plan with your child care provider to call if your child is absent
  • Have a partner agree to call at a specified time to make sure your child was taken to day care as planned, especially when outside of your regular daily routine
  • Use drive-thru services when available and pay for gas at the pump
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