How to Prevent Death in a Hot Car: What You Need to Know Before Tragedy Strikes

As the mercury rises, more kids and pets are in danger of heat-related injuries or deaths in a hot car. Here's what you need to know to prevent tragedy.

Child In Front Of Honda Passport
? Jill Robbins

It’s that time of year.

Temperatures are rising and people all over the country are thinking – or hoping – they’ve seen the last of the cold weather for a while. Since I’m in Texas “that time of year” is about 10 months out of 12, but I can appreciate that the rest of the world experiences that little thing we call four seasons. 

Car Cleaning Hacks Seat Protectors

It might seem tempting not to wake her, but it’s necessary; kids can die in hot cars. Photo: Kim S.

Hot Car Deaths – What You Need to Know When Temps Rise

As the mercury on the thermometer rises, we need to consider the safety of our children and pets that ride in our cars with us. Leaving a child or pet in a car unattended has a plethora of “this could end badly” scenarios. Before we head out we need to consider hot car deaths and what we can do to prevent them.

Heat stroke is the leading cause of non-crash related vehicle deaths in children under 15 and it is entirely preventable. Read on to understand why leaving a child unattended in a car is dangerous. Learn how you can help yourself remember not to do it. 

Related: A Complete Guide to Road Tripping With Pets

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They are too precious to risk hurting in a hot car. Photo: Nasreen Stump

If you leave your child in a hot car, are you a bad parent?

Not necessarily. Something like a change of routine or being preoccupied can cause you to leave your vehicle and forget your child in the backseat. I know. Some of us probably have the “I would never” reaction but an average of 39 kids in the U.S. die of heatstroke due to being left in a car each year. 

According to the United States Department of Transportation, most hot car deaths occur when a parent thinks they dropped their child off at daycare or school. If you’re a parent you know what it’s like to be preoccupied with the other 99 things on your to-do list. The most common time for death in hot cars is the end of the work week – Thursday and Friday – when people have a lot going on or a lot of things on their plate. 

 Yes, some carelessness is involved in these deaths. Yes, you can argue that 39 is a small number in comparison to the number of kids who ride around in cars every day. But, when these deaths are so easily preventable, I think we can all agree that 39 is too many.

And, you should never, ever, intentionally leave a child unattended in the car, in any temperature. Even if you’re just running into a convenience store for five minutes. Even if you have your car in sight the entire time? Still no. There are so many things that could go wrong in this situation. Don’t chance it. 

A Girls Guide To Cars | How To Prevent Death In A Hot Car: What You Need To Know Before Tragedy Strikes - Hot Car Deaths A Girls Guide To Cars

As temperatures start to rise, leaving your kids in the car, even for a minute, is dangerous. Photo: Kim Smith

Know the Law

Many states have laws in place about leaving a child unattended in a car. Know what you can and can’t do in your state. While there are states that don’t consider leaving a child unattended in a car to be illegal or punishable, this does not mean that it is OK or safe to leave a child alone in a car in those states. 

This link gives a rundown on how each state views leaving a child or incapacitated person in the car and also gives information on Good Samaritan Laws and child seat laws from state to state. It’s a great resource, especially for families who are traveling.

Related: Which 2 Row SUVs Are Best For Child Car Seats? The Ultimate Car Seat Challenge

Hot car deaths – How the science works

Have you ever got into your car on a hot summer day and had to let the AC run for a bit before you could comfortably touch the steering wheel? That’s how hot the inside of your car can get. It’s literally an oven. Being in a car as this temperature for even a few minutes can cause heatstroke; this is what happens when your body can’t cool itself.

A child’s body heats up faster than an adult’s body does, which is one of the reasons why this is so dangerous for kids who are left in a hot car even for just a short time.

In just 10 minutes, a car can heat up over 20 degrees. When the outside temperature is 80-100 degrees, the temperature inside the car can be has high as 170 if the car is parked in direct sunlight. Cracking a window does little to keep the car cool once it has been turned off. 

Even that “I’ll just run in and grab ___” is dangerous. Organs begin to shut down when body temperature reaches 104 and death can occur if body temperature reaches 107. 

 Related: SUVs vs. Minivans – What is right for YOU?

The Rear Cabin Is Roomy And Visibility Is Good, Even With Kids Car Seats Installed. Photo: Erica Mueller

The sun beaming in can heat up the car quickly. Photo: Erica Mueller

How can we prevent hot car deaths?

Place a personal item in the rear seat. You’re less likely to get out of your car and go into your workplace or your house without your purse. Or, your briefcase or backpack. Get into the habit of putting those items in the rear seat. 

Set a reminder on your phone. You can also ask your child’s caregiver or school to call you if your child doesn’t show up as expected. Most daycare centers and schools have an attendance process in place but if you use a home daycare provider, your chances of getting that call earlier than later are better. 

Get into the habit of doing a walk-around or visual check of your vehicle.  It takes roughly 13 times to make something a habit. Focus on consciously making this check a few times and it will soon become muscle memory.

Place a stuffed animal – or other visual reminder – to remind you to check the back seat.

Relate: What can you do to stop hot car deaths?

Technology that can help prevent hot car deaths

There’s a lot of available technology that has been designed to help parents remember that their child is in the backseat. However, as tech forward as I (think I) am, this is one instance where you can’t rely on technology. These systems should be a backup. Placing your purse in the rear seat or doing a walk around each time you get out of the car will be more effective.

There are multiple apps designed to alert parents that they’ve left their children unattended in the car. Waze has a child reminder feature. There’s also Kars 4Kids and the Backseat App.

If you’re buying a new car seat, look for one that has a rear seat reminder feature. Cybex is a good one to check out. The car seat’s clip is connected to an app. The app will alert you if you’ve left your car with your child still in the back seat.

Several automakers have jumped on board to create technology o prevent children being left unattended in cars. GMC was the first to adapt it and quickly GM added the technology to all Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac models, too.  Hyundai, Kia, Subaru and Nissan have added rear seat alert technology to most or all of their models.

I have no doubt that technology to help parents keep their kids safe will evolve. BUT. Don’t rely on technology or let complacence that “the app will let me know” keep you from being alert.

Other ways to prevent hot car deaths

  • Store car keys out of reach of children at all times.
  • Always lock your car when not in use.
  • Teach your kids that a car is not a place to play. 
  • Be a good bystander. If you see a child left in the car unattended, call 9-11. Get the child out, if you can. Don’t waste time looking for the parents or think about “Well, what if I’m going to get someone in trouble?”
  • Don’t forget pets. Pet hot car deaths are not included in the stats and the laws on leaving pets unattended in the car vary from location to location but leaving a pet – especially a small one – in a hot car is just as dangerous as leaving your child.

For more info on hot car deaths, check out the Department of Transportation’s guidelines here.

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Jill is the oldest mom with the youngest kids pretty much everywhere she goes. She has a 29-year-old daughter... More about Jill Robbins

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