Sad, Shocking, Preventable: A Child Can Die When Left in the Car

Child Left In Car
A scary scene: First responders check on a child left in a locked car. Photo:

What You Need to Know, What You Can Do and How to Help Solve the Problem.

It’s shocking, sad, but a fact: 30 or more children will die alone in a car this year. So far in 2014, 19 children left unattended in a car have died.

Of those, half were left by a parent or a care giver; others were playing in an unlocked car and were trapped. Lindsey Seitz, a Ridgefield, CT, mom suffered this heartbreak last month when her son Ben was left in the car alone. She started a blog about it, The Gift of Ben, and her goal is to create a national discussion that includes car makers, car seat manufacturers, lawmakers, parents and more. 

Heatstroke deaths started rising in the 1990s when front seat airbags became standard and kids were relegated to the back seat; previously car seats rode up front. With our kids out of sight, they can become ‘out of mind’ too, especially if they fall asleep in the car seat. This means we all must be more proactive to prevent children from being left alone in a car. Here are some things you need to know:

Cars can become deadly in minutes

Cars can heat quickly, faster than it takes you to run into the bank, faster than it takes to get your Starbucks. To give you an idea: 

  • Temperatures can rise 20 degrees in first 10 minutes, then about 1 degree per minute after that
  • Dark interiors heat faster and get hotter, up to 180 degrees or more
  • Even on days with temperatures in the 60s, a car’s temp can reach over 110 degrees
  • On a 70 degree day, 20 minutes in locked car is enough time for a child to die
  • On an 80 degree day, child left in a car can be brain dead in 10 minutes
  • Cracked windows don’t help to dissipate the heat
Child Left In Car

Apps, such as the Precious Cargo app, can alert parents or caregivers that they’ve left a child in the car

Kids are more vulnerable than adults and pets. Here’s why 

Children’s bodies warm faster than adults and their ability to regulate temperature isn’t as well developed as adults; animals, especially those with fur, are much better at this.

  • ‘Dry heat’ temperatures in a closed car can become dangerous to small children in minutes
  • Humidity causes the temperature to increase twice as fast
  • At 104 degrees a child’s organs start to shut down

Never leave a kid in a car unattended

Seems obvious right? Even if the windows are partially open or the engine is running and the air conditioning is on, it’s not safe. Consider: 

  • Kids risk heat stroke, quickly, even at low outside temperatures
  • Car jacking is a risk
  • Kidnapping is a risk
  • It’s a felony in 20 states to leave a child unattended in a car

How to make sure you never have a child left in a car 

Sleep deprivation, change in schedules, new caregiver, forgetful friend: these are the more typical scenarios when a child is left in a car. These tips will help you and your child’s caregiver to never let this happen: 

  • Look before you lock: make a habit of looking in the vehicle—front and back—before locking the car and leaving
  • Put a mirror on the back seat so you have eye contact with a child in a rear-facing car seat
  • Ask your daycare, school or other childcare provider to call if the child does not show up for care as expected
  • Make your child’s safety in the car a priority for caregivers who might be driving your child: talk about it daily
  • Keep a stuffed animal in the car seat and put it up front when the child is in the seat
  • Put your cell phone, purse or computer bag in the back seat next to the child
  • Always check and lock the car, even in the driveway
  • Teach children the car is not a play area and store keys out of a child’s reach
  • If you need to stop on the way home—dry cleaner, drug store, restaurant—call and ask if they’ll bring your order out to the car. Lots of places will do this. Or, move your prescriptions and bank account to locations with a drive through
Child Left In A Car

The BabyAlert Child Minder safety clip is among the tech developments that can alert a parent to a child left in the car

Tech Solutions Are Developing, but not yet a failsafe

Tech companies are starting to develop ways to ensure no child is left in a car unattended, but safety agencies have not recommended or endorsed any yet, citing inconsistent results. Still, parents with irregular schedules or babysitters who drive the kids may want to consider them:

  • iPhone and Android apps that act as reminders to check the car seat, including the Precious Cargo app that will remind you about a child in the car
  • The Tomy smart car seat, which monitors temperature and will alert you if a child is left in the seat; it sells for about $275 on Amazon
  • BabyAlert Child Minder smart clip, a two-part device that attaches to the car seat shoulder strap and your key ring’ it will send an alert if you’re more than 15 feet from the car and the seat clip hasn’t been deactivated

If it does happen, what you should do

Tennessee has a Good Samaritan law that allows a stranger to break into a car if they see an unattended child in danger. If you see a child locked in a car, here are some things you can do:

  • Call 911 immediately
  • If the car is a GM model (Chevrolet, GMC, Buick or Cadillac) call OnStar; operators can help to alert emergency responders, listen for the child in the car and unlock the car
  • If the car is a Hyundai, the company’s Blue Link service, similar to OnStar, can perform these services, too
  • Yell for help from bystanders
  • Don’t be afraid to break a window if the child is unresponsive. Find a tire iron, hammer or other heavy tool and break a front window on the opposite side of the car from the child

Heatstroke isn’t just a summertime issue; with more and more people moving to warm climates, with our increasingly unpredictable weather and with more time spent in cars, Lindsey Seitz is right: the discussion needs to come to a national level. Leave a note here, visit The Gift of Ben, and find more information and sign a petition to elevate the conversation at KidsandCars.

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss