Unthinkable really, leaving a child in a car and forgetting about them. But it happens more than a dozen times every single year here in the US. On average, over 30 children die from the consequences of heat stroke after being left or trapped in a hot car.
Children are particularly vulnerable to heat stroke because their bodies heat up 5 times faster than adults. The reason for their quicker warming stems from a child’s inferior ability to cool themselves (sweat) and their high surface-area-to-mass ratios.
A car heats up rapidly on a hot day. For example, if it’s 80 degrees outside your car can heat up to 123 degrees in an hour. Heatstroke can happen when it’s only 60-70 degrees outside and we all know from experience that in just 10 minutes, your car can rise 20 degrees in temperature.
Most people instantly feel that they could never forget their sleeping children in their car on the way to work. Read this incredible 2009 award-winning Washington Post article if you’re in doubt. Gene Weingarten chronicles the experience of a man on trial for murder after forgetting his child in the car. He weaves in details about the science of distraction. It’s a haunting and terribly difficult article to read but it’s wholly instructive: this could happen to any of us.
We have to create reminders and habits that prevent the possible mistakes of leaving an infant or child in a hot car (see below).
Parents may leave children in a car that can overheat by accident after forgetting to drop them at school in the morning. Mr Weingarten writes:
The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.
Children die from hyperthermia after their bodies reach over heat and exceed 108 degrees. In 2010, 49 kids died in overheated cars nationwide, then 33 in 2011 and 32 last year, according to statistics kept by meteorologist Jan Null and the advocacy group KidsandCars.org. The majority of children who die are under age 2. Infants and toddlers have been forgotten more commonly since the 1990’s when experts advised parents to move children to the back seat of cars to prevent injuries from airbags in the front.
Children should never be left in the car unattended. No run into the grocery or to the ATM is ever a reason to leave an infant or child inside. Keeping an infant safe is ALWAYS a good reason to wake a sleeping baby.
Preventing Preventable Deaths To Heat Stroke And Hyperthermia
- “Look before you lock!” Leave purse, briefcase, cell phone or computer in back seat every day so you’re in the habit of checking the back seat each and every time you get out of the car.
- Never leave children or infants in car, even if windows open.
- Don’t let children play in a parked car.
- Keep your car locked, even in your driveway.
- Have your child’s school advised to always call you if your child doesn’t show up on a day they are expecting your child. Build in extra measures of security for protection.
- Don’t ever hesitate to call 911 if you see a child left unattended in a car.
Children’s Safety Network Infographic
Chris Johnson says
I’ve cared for a couple of children over the years who ended up in the PICU after being left in hot cars. In both cases the mother meant just to run in and run back out, but got distracted or delayed. One died. This is not a trivial thing.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Awful experience, I assume. Thanks for the comment, Dr Johnson
Kelly Adams says
A great reminder that it can and does happen to all types of parents. It happened to my husband when he went to the hardware store and the boy fell asleep in his car seat. Fortunately, it was not a hot day and he was quick. Two people were standing at his car and had called the police. Rightly so! It was a horrible mistake and we were all fortunate nothing tragic occurred.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Thanks for telling the story, Kelly. I haven’t forgot my children in the car but I’ve certainly forgotten all sorts of other details. The Weingarten article really does spell out how this can happen to any of us.
So glad your children are safe and you’re sharing your story….
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