Child deaths from being left in cars happen all too often all over the world, including here at home in the U.S. Hot car deaths can happen anywhere, and often quite unintentionally, but they can also be prevented with improved education and awareness.
As warmer weather once again returns to the U.S., this is the life-saving information you need to know before you buckle up your children and hit the road.
Hot car death statistics
- Since 1998, Consumer Reports indicates an average of 39 children die nationwide each year from vehicular heatstroke.
- After motor vehicle crashes, heatstroke is a leading cause of death in vehicles for children 14 and younger.
- Child deaths from being left in cars are decreasing, with 24 deaths in 2020 compared to fifty-two deaths in 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
- Of hot car deaths, the NHTSA indicates 25% occur because the child is able to gain access to an unattended vehicle, not because a parent left them there.
- Since 1998, Jan Null, founder of No Heat Stroke (NHS) found a total of 882 children have lost their lives from Pediatric Vehicular Heatstroke (PVH). According to NHS findings, every one of these deaths could have been prevented.
Table of contents
- What you need to know about how car deaths
- What is a hot car death?
- Hot car death statistics 2021
- Risk factors
- Common dangerous misconceptions
- How common is it to leave a kid in a hot car?
- The consequences of hot car deaths
- How to prevent hot car deaths
- Kids in hot cars laws state by state
- Awareness resources for your community
What you need to know about hot car deaths
When a child is sleeping peacefully in the backseat, it’s too easy to zone out — distracted by a multitude of worries and priorities that fill up your day — and forget the child is there.
A study from the NHS shows that most pediatric heat stroke cases stem from a caregiver forgetting about the child. In cases where a child was forgotten, nearly half of those parents or caregivers had intended to drop a child at daycare or preschool. The NHTSA adds, “Thursdays and Fridays — the end of the workweek — have had the highest deaths.”
Other causes include the following:
|Rank||Reason||Percentage of PVH Accidents||Number of Child Deaths|
|1.||Forgotten by caregiver||52.9%||467|
|2.||Gained access independently||25.6%||227|
|3.||Knowingly left by caregiver||19.7%||173|
Many people just don’t realize how quickly a car can heat on a warm day. One four-year-old boy died in 2020 from heat stroke when it was only 78° F outside. In 2005, another perished when temperatures reached just 73°F.
On a day where it is 73°F outside, it only takes 25 minutes for temperatures inside a vehicle to exceed 100°F. Weather.gov reports the majority of temperature increases also occur within the first 15 to 30 minutes of a vehicle being off and unattended, proving that it doesn’t take long at all to reach dangerous temperatures.
At its Auto Test Track in Connecticut, Consumer Reports conducted in-depth research using precision instruments to determine the exact effect of temperatures on enclosed vehicles. Findings include the following:
|Month||Temperature outside||Temperature inside a car after one hour|
|June||61° F||105° F and higher|
|July||78° F||Light-colored sedan: 104° F and higher
Dark-colored sedan: 109° F and higher
“Children should never be left unattended in a car for even a short period of time,” says Jennifer Stockburger, the Director of Operations at CR’s Auto Test Center. “Even when it’s not that hot outside, our test results show how quickly temperatures inside the car escalate, regardless of whether your car is light or dark.”
It’s not worth the risk, especially when a child is at a much higher risk of heatstroke than others.
Effects on young children
Little bodies are especially at risk from PVH because their bodies are more susceptible to heat than adults. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that a child’s body heats three to five times faster than that of an adult. Children have trouble regulating the temperature of their bodies, making it easier for them to dehydrate. A child reaches the internal threshold for heatstroke at a temperature of 104° F, and death is imminent when the body reaches 107° F.
Prevention first begins with education and awareness, which is what our guide aims to provide parents and caregivers with children of all ages.
What is a hot car death?
Hot car death is the more colloquial term for Pediatric Vehicular Heatstroke (PVH) and refers to the unintended fatality of a child under the age of 18 that perishes due to severe heat or heatstroke within an enclosed and contained vehicle.
The interior of a car, such as the dark upholstery or a leather-wrapped steering wheel, can attract heat and hold it, causing the temperature inside the vehicle to quickly rise. With no incoming cycle of fresh air to cool the interior, the temperatures exponentially become hotter and hotter, growing to dangerous levels until it proves fatal to those inside. Both pets and children are especially susceptible because they lack the ability to safely extricate themselves from these harmful situations.
Hot car death warning signs
Heatstroke doesn’t happen instantly. Although it can progress very rapidly depending on the temperature, there are still several warning signs to let you know that something is amiss.
There are hot car death warning signs to watch for:
- A core body temperature of 104 ° F or higher
- Skin feels hot and dry
- Agitation and irritability
- Slurred speech
- Flushed skin
- Rapid breathing
- Racing heart rate
If any of these signs are present, it is imperative to seek emergency medical attention immediately for life-saving aid.
Updated hot car death statistics
Hot car death statistics were down in 2020, with about half of the fatalities in both 2018 and 2019. With coronavirus impacting daily activities and social distancing measures still in place, the renewed focus on home appears to be serving children well, as fewer are falling victim to PVH. Overall, there seems to be significantly less time spent in the car and thus, fewer child deaths from being left in cars.
The historical trend indicates an average of 39 children have lost their lives each year since 1998, accounting for more than 880 children total.
Studies from Jan Null, CCM, of San Jose State University’s Department of Meteorology and Climate Science, show that in more than half of these cases, the child was simply forgotten. We can’t expect our daily worries or distractions to diminish, but car manufacturers are making strides to help, and continued education efforts to raise awareness may save additional lives.
These are sadly just a few of the many casualties the U.S. has seen from hot car deaths.
Though each case is different, there are some repeated risk factors that are commonly associated with pediatric vehicular heatstroke.
Child deaths from being left in cars
NHS provides an in-depth look at the 2020 cases it has studied.
|04/25/2020||Tomball, TX||78℉||Boy||4 yrs|
|05/28/2020||Clewsiton, FL||90℉||Girl||10 mos|
|06/18/2020||Ellerbe, NC||81℉||Boy||22 mos|
|06/26/2020||Springfield, VA||86℉||Girl||11 mos|
|07/04/2020||Oklahoma City, OK||92℉||Girl||17 mos|
|07/08/2020||Fullerton, CA||84℉||Boy||22 mos|
|07/11/2020||Hopkinsville, KY||90℉||girl||3 yrs|
|07/18/2020||Wichita Falls, TX||96℉||Boy||4 yrs|
|07/20/2020||Booneville, AR||97℉||Girl||3 yrs|
|07/22/2020||Farmers Branch, TX||94℉||Girl
|07/28/2020||Chesapeake, VA||96℉||Girl||8 mos|
|08/09/2020||Hodges, AL||92℉||Boy||3 yrs|
|08/15/2020||Vidor, TX||99℉||Boy||4 yrs|
|08/17/2020||Edmond, OK||92℉||Girl||3 yrs|
|08/30/2020||Phoenix, AZ||101℉||Girl||3 yrs|
|09/02/2020||Panama City, FL||90℉||Girl||Infant|
|09/11/2020||Pine Hills, FL||91℉||Boy||1 yr|
|09/27/2020||Lafayette Parish, LA||89℉||Boy||2 yrs|
|10/05/2020||Las Vegas, NV||99℉||Girl||22 mos|
Hot car deaths can happen to children of any age, but the victims tend to be very young. PVH happens most frequently to children 14 years old and younger, but more than half of all child deaths since 1998 involve children under the age of two.
Child hot car deaths can happen anywhere; every state has had at least one child fatality attributed to pediatric vehicular heatstroke, but some areas are historically worse than others based on geographical considerations.
A look at 2020’s cases shows a concentration in certain areas. Texas and Florida accounted for nearly a quarter of PVH cases, showing that while the risk is everywhere, the South faces a higher risk with warmer year-round temperatures.
Most reported cases indicate temperatures exceeded 90℉, which can be especially fatal because the higher the temperature, the faster the heat rises in the car. On a cooler day, a child has a better chance of getting help before it’s too late. However, research has shown that even temperatures in the low 70s can still pose fatal risk.
In 2020, an increased risk began emerging with the rise of parents working from home. Children are spending increasing amounts of time within the home due to social distancing mandates, so risks within the home are becoming more prominent. The risk of children gaining access to unlocked vehicles and becoming trapped, especially as they become increasingly bored around the home, is much greater with the stay-at-home lifestyle.
Common dangerous misconceptions
Common misconceptions regularly contribute to pediatric deaths because they are believed to prevent PVH when they can be ineffective at preventing harm, exacerbate the problem or even cause the situation to be worse.
Many parents may believe that an open or cracked window is enough to provide ventilation, but depending on the temperature outside, it may not be enough to mitigate stifling heat.
“Partially opened windows do allow some heat to escape,” says the Senior Director of Auto Testing at Consumer Reports Jake Fisher, “but as long as the heat source (the sun) continues to beat down and heat up the inside car elements, the temperature can stay dangerously high.”
In its studies, Consumer Reports is also careful to address the issue of shade. Some parents and caregivers may park their car in a shaded area and think that it will be cool enough, but that’s not really the case.
“Test results help dispel the myth that hot-car deaths or heat stroke happen only on blisteringly hot days in the dead of summer,” it writes.
Researchers at Arizona State University and the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine also found similar results in their testing. Identical vehicles were placed in the shade and sun, and it found that even a vehicle in the shade is at severe risk. Based on their data, they concluded that even in a shaded area, a two-year-old’s core body temperature could reach 104° F in less than two hours.
Color of car
An interesting revelation from Consumer Reports is that the color of your car could have little to do with hot car deaths. In its testing, Consumer Reports did not find any significant proof to show that the color of the vehicle was directly related to the temperature inside the vehicle.
How common is it to leave a kid in a hot car?
As Consumer Reports indicates, nearly 40 children die in a hot car annually. However, it is more common for this to occur in specific states.
In southern areas like Florida and Texas, consistently warmer temperatures can present a year-round risk. Northern states, on the other hand, only experience a few months of warm weather, allowing far less opportunity for child hot car deaths. In fact, Texas and Florida accounted for one-quarter of all PVH cases in 2020.
Pediatric vehicular heatstroke doesn’t just happen in the U.S., either. Several other parts of the country have also experienced child deaths attributed to hot cars, with countries like Australia and Israel making international headlines.
Hot car death cases
It’s hard to understand the exact impact of each loss until you put a face and a name to these numbers. These are just a few of the many children who have lost their lives to unintentional hot car death.
- March 2007 – Bryce Balfour was just nine months old when he perished from heatstroke inside a vehicle on a 66 ° F day in Charlottesville, Virginia.
- May 2017 – In Caldwell, Idaho, Kyrae Vineyard was just five months old when the infant perished after four hours inside a car on a 76° F day.
- July 2019 – In New York, 12-month-old twins Luna and Phoenix Rodriguez died after their father, social worker Jose Rodriguez, forgot them in the backseat.
- August 2019 – 6-month-old Jovany Morales was left in a Knoxville vehicle on a day when temperatures topped 90 degrees.
- September 2019 – 2-year-old June Love Augusto was left in a running car with the heat on full-blast and was found with burns on her body and an internal temperature of 107.5° F.
- August 2020 – In Birmingham, Alabama, two brothers, Daniel Garcia, 3, and Ivan Salazar Jr, 1, died from heatstroke after climbing into a hot vehicle and becoming trapped inside.
- September 2020 – An newborn was left in a vehicle for hours on a 91° F day in Panama City, Florida before succumbing to heatstroke.
- October 2020 – Sayah Deal, a 21-month-old girl, died after being locked in a vehicle, and the caregiver refused to break the window, concerned over the cost of repair.
The consequences of hot car deaths
For most parents, the loss doesn’t stop with the death of their child. Legal repercussions can extend far into the family’s life.
KidsandCars.org analyzed nearly 500 cases where the parent or caregiver had accidentally forgotten a child, resulting in a hot car death. They found that these cases were treated dramatically differently within the U.S. legal system. Within the 500 cases, it was discovered that:
- 43% – no charges were filed
- 32% – caregiver was charged and convicted
- 11% – criminal charge resulted in no conviction
- 14% – cases were still pending or unknown
The study notes that a court’s decision to prosecute and convict a hot car death depends on several different factors that may be weighted differently depending on where the case is being tried and the exact circumstances of the case.
There must be sufficient proof to press charges and take the case to trial, and prosecutors may approach the case in different ways. Some prosecutors may be more lenient than others, depending on the circumstances.
Courts also call into consideration the science of it all, as well, looking to medical documents and scientific studies to determine just how much guilt should be placed on the parent or caregiver. Public opinion and outcry can also influence a decision of whether to prosecute and convict. These are the reasons why some parents end up facing felony or misdemeanor charges while others walk away with no legal repercussions.
“All in all, there is no rhyme or reason to how these cases are treated,” concludes Amber Rollins, Director of KidsandCars.org.
Beyond legal implications, parents may see repercussions with car insurance as well, depending on the state and how carriers handle various criminal charges that could be levied.
Hot car safety laws state by state
Legislature varies from state to state, showing that we still have a ways to go when it comes to awareness and prevention of pediatric vehicular heatstroke.
How to prevent hot car deaths
Several car manufacturers are stepping up in response to child deaths in hot vehicles, working to deliver new solutions to curb the number of fatalities each year. These car manufacturers are leveraging the advanced technologies designed to save lives and give parents a helping hand.
Since 2017, GM models have featured the Rear Seat Reminder. This lets the driver know when a rear door is opened after the vehicle is turned on.
Similar to the Rear Seat Reminder, Nissan offers its Rear Door Alert that detects when a rear door is opened before a trip and not opened again when the trip is completed. This is a feature that comes standard on the 2018 Nissan Pathfinder, and the company plans to include it on all four-door vehicles by 2022.
- Kia and Hyundai
With its Rear Occupant Alert, Hyundai integrates motion sensors to ensure all passengers make it safely out of the car. Drivers automatically get a warning to check the rear seats when they turn off the engine. Even if that warning is ignored and the car is locked, it will still continue to actively detect motion in the back seat of the vehicle for 24 hours after the trip is completed. If motion is detected, the car will honk its horn for 25 seconds to attract attention and either email or text owners with a Blue Link subscription.
The 2020 Highlander features a rear seat reminder that will send the driver visual and audible reminders when the rear door is opened again after the conclusion of a trip.
A key player on Capitol Hill, Consumer Reports continues to call on policymakers in Congress to back the Hot Cars Act of 2019. This bipartisan legislation would require all new passenger vehicles in the U.S. to include child safety technologies within their standard equipment packages to prevent child vehicular heatstroke.
Consumer Reports Senior Policy Analyst, Ethan Douglas, says thisl; “The good news is that the technology to prevent these tragedies is available. That’s why we strongly urge Congress to pass the Hot Cars Act without delay, to provide parents with a simple, integrated, and reliable way to help prevent forgetting their child in the back seat when they get out of the car.”
Keeping kids out of hot cars
As a parent or caregiver, you are in the best position to keep your child safe from pediatric vehicular heatstroke. There are a few tips to help you keep a watchful eye over your roaming children.
- Teach them that cars are not a toy.
Motor vehicles can represent a source of novelty for children who see them as gateways to fun and adventure. It’s imperative that you teach your children that the car is not a safe place to play alone because they can accidentally get trapped or hurt without anyone knowing.
- Put the keys away.
Be sure to store your keys in a height-appropriate place that is safe from your child’s grasp. Be proactive and keep the keys out of sight and out of reach to ensure children cannot easily access them.
- Always check the pool and then your vehicle.
Pools and cars are two of the greatest risks to children in a home, so if you cannot find your child suddenly, those are two places to check immediately. Check vehicle trunks as well, as that may be a quick point of access if a trunk is left open unintentionally.
- Don’t leave them, not even for a minute.
It’s tempting for a busy parent to leave the kids in the car during a quick errand. However, leaving your child alone in a vehicle is never safe, regardless of whether the car is running, a window is cracked, the spot is shaded or even if it doesn’t seem that hot outside.
Hot car safety: what you can do
Awareness is the first step in preventing child deaths in hot cars.
The hardest issue to fight is that this is typically an unintentional crime, one that has devastating consequences. Understanding how quickly a seemingly harmless situation can turn deadly can help with driver awareness.
As technology continues to grow and car manufacturers deliver new life-saving innovations, this may improve things, but ultimately it is the responsibility of every driver and members of the community to be attentive and notice opportunities of risk or harm.
What to do if you see a child in a hot car
Many states have introduced Good Samaritan laws, which allow bypassers to intervene should they witness a child trapped in a hot car. The rules vary for adults, children and pets left unattended depending on where you live, but many states have passed legislation or plan on introducing these protections to the general public.
If you see a child that is alone in a hot vehicle, there are a few things you can do to ensure that child’s safety until a parent or caregiver can be located.
- Ensure the child is awake and responsive.
- Attempt to find the parents by enlisting the help of a security guard or PA system.
- Attempt to gain access to the vehicle. This may mean breaking a window, but a sheet of glass can always be fixed later and isn’t worth the cost of a child’s life.
If, at any time, the child appears to be in distress, call 911 immediately. You could make all the difference in a child’s life.
|What you can do||How it helps|
|Take a free online class||Educate yourself and your community on the dangers of vehicular heatstroke. Available in English and Spanish from the National Safety Council.|
|Print out safety cards||Place these reminders in your office, in your car, and near the front door of your home so you never forget to check the car.|
|Sign up for a newsletter||Safe Kids Worldwide, KidsAndCars.org, Jan Null (noheatstroke.org) and the National Safety Council work together to provide free Heatstroke Prevention Newsletters that you can receive.|
|Join the Roundtable||On July 1, 2020, the NHTSA held its Virtual Press Event and Roundtable to discuss its latest findings. Watch the 2020 event, and be sure to check back for plans for 2021.|
|Look up NHTSA contacts for your area||The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provides each state with NHTSA training contacts for child passenger safety.|
|Review tips for traveling with children.||The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides key tips all parents should know before they hit the road with their kids this summer.|