Kids in hot cars: Look before you lock to prevent a tragedy

As temperatures go up this spring and summer, no doubt you will be feeling the heat. In fact, it can feel down right oppressive as you climb into the car, clambering to crank the A/C.

But imagine being strapped in for hours, with the car parked in the sunshine without the air conditioning running.

It’s a deadly combination, and unfortunately it has claimed the lives of 755 children between 1990 and 2015, according to KidsAndCars.org.

Courtesy of KidsAndCars.org

Courtesy of KidsAndCars.org

It happens quickly

The scenario happens often: A parent or guardian is running an errand and only intends to be in a store or home for a few minutes. They leave the child strapped in the back seat, but without the air conditioning running.

Research conducted by meteorologist Jan Null and the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science at San Jose State University shows that the temperature within a vehicle can climb quickly in a very short amount of time.

Source: McLaren, Null, Quinn; Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics

Source: McLaren, Null, Quinn; Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics

Within ten minutes, the temperature within a vehicle can climb as much as 19 degrees. On a day in which the ambient outdoor temperature is 71 degrees, the temperature inside the vehicle has climbed to 90.

But what happens if the guardian gets distracted by, say, a conversation with a friend? Or what happens if the check out line gets bogged down?

Within 20 minutes, the temperature within a vehicle can climb as much as 30 degrees. On a 70 degree day, the temperature inside the vehicle is 100 degrees — or greater.

The tragic situation is compounded in the summer, when the ambient outdoor temperature is frequently greater than 80 degrees. Temperatures can quickly climb to well above 100 inside the vehicle within a span of 10 minutes during the summer. 

Unfortunately, the research indicates that leaving the windows cracked will not provide much relief to the swelling temperatures within the vehicle.

Source: McLaren, Null, Quinn; Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics

Source: McLaren, Null, Quinn; Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics

This is because the massive amounts of heat generated when sunlight is absorbed and re-radiated by the interior objects and upholstery within the car. The darker the material, the hotter the temperatures inside.

While the temperatures are certainly uncomfortable to an adult, the situation often is fatal for younger children.

In fact, researchers from the Division of Emergency Medicine at Stanford University noted in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics that toddlers’ and infants’ bodies are smaller and tend to absorb heat more quickly compared to adults. They also lose a greater percentage of body fluids to sweating compared to adults, generating in a quicker onset of dehydration and hyperthermia.

In essence, a child’s body is not able to “cope” with the heat as well as an adult in the same situation.

How to prevent it: Look before you lock

In the hypothetical situation above, the best way to prevent the tragic situation is to bring the child into the store or business with you. Never leave a child alone in a car, even if you think you will return in just a few minutes. All it takes is a few minutes for the temperature to swell within the vehicle.

Courtesy of KidsAndCars.org

Courtesy of KidsAndCars.org

Tragically, many children perish in hot vehicles because their care giver simply forgot that the child was in the back seat. Data gathered by Jan Null from 1998 through 2015 indicates that as much as 54 percent of children who succumbed to the heat were “forgotten” by a parent or guardian.

Many parents protest and state that they would never leave their child in a back seat, but in many of the cases in which the children who were “forgotten” by a guardian, the adult was distracted by a phone call, a text, or a change in routine that prevented them from “remembering” that their child was in the vehicle.

The best way to prevent accidentally forgetting that the child is in the back seat is to look before you lock the car and walk away. KidsAndCars.org offers the following tips for preventing a tragedy:

  • Keep your purse in the back seat so that it forces you to see your child before you walk away.
  • Keep a stuffed animal in the front seat to remind you that the child is in the back.
  • Make it a habit to open and close the back doors, even if nobody is back there, in the event that you are traveling with your child; repetition builds routine, and you want to be in the routine of always double checking the back seat before you leave.