Kids, Cars, and Heatstroke

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Making this personal
I remember being six years old and locked in a hot car in Miami, Florida. My father knowingly left me in the car and went into the bank. He said he would be right back. It was really hot in that car. I was sweating profusely and felt like I was going to pass out. I remember thinking that my father had left me forever. Yet I didn't try to unlock the car and get out. I didn't honk the horn. I was a good boy and didn't want to cause a fuss. And so, I waited, watching the heat waves rising off the hood.
I was probably only in the car for ten minutes, but it felt like an eternity. My dad eventually returned, and I was lucky. It only takes ten minutes for a locked car to get hot enough to kill a child… even with the windows cracked open. 

According to the United States Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 907 children have died in hot cars since 1998.

Child Hot Car Deaths

An average of 39 children die from being left in hot vehicles each year. Over 50 percent of these incidents involve a parent or guardian forgetting that the child was in the car and 54 percent of these children were under two years old. How can this possibly happen? When questioned, many parents of these lost children have said that they thought they had dropped their child off at daycare. It was such a busy morning, and they were distracted. Yet in 2018 alone, a record 53 children died of vehicular heatstroke.
A child's body temperature rises three to five times faster than an adult's and when a child is left in a hot car, their temperature can rise very quickly. Death can occur in just minutes. Heatstroke begins when the core body temperature reaches about 104 degrees, and a child can die when their body temperature reaches 107 degrees.
What you can do
  • Always look around inside your car before locking it. We know it is easy to get distracted, especially in the age of cell phones. But when you park a vehicle, always look before you lock up. Check for your baby!
  • The number one reason that children perish in hot cars is because their parent or caregiver forgot them. The number two reason is that kids climb into unlocked, unattended vehicles and get trapped. An amazing 26 percent of vehicular heatstroke deaths occur from kids getting into unlocked cars where the inside temperature can reach 115 degrees even when the outside temperature is just 70 degrees. That's why we say you should park, look for your child, and then lock your car.
  • While 54.2 percent of child deaths in hot cars is due to being forgotten in the vehicle by a parent or guardian, 25.2 percent are children who gained access to an unlocked car, and 19.2 percent of these young ones were knowingly left in the car by someone who did not recognize the danger. Remember that there is no safe amount of time to leave a child alone, locked in a car, even if you're just running a quick errand. Always look for your child before you lock your car.

New Car Technology is Helping

The National Safety Council (NSC) is working to support stronger laws to protect children from being knowingly left in unattended vehicles. The NSC is helping to advance new technology that may reduce heatstroke deaths in children left in hot cars. One of these technologies is a Rear Seat Reminder (also known as Rear Occupant Alert) that will soon be included in all new cars. If a rear door is opened and closed within ten minutes before the vehicle is started or is opened and closed while the vehicle is running, five chimes will sound, and a message will appear on the instrument cluster screen to remind the driver to check the rear seat for passengers.
The Rear Seat Reminder will also activate whenever the vehicle is stopped, turned off, and the driver's door is opened. This new tech first appeared in some General Motors vehicles in 2017 and is now available in many new vehicles. In 2019, the US Congress proposed the Hot Cars Act to mandate rear-seat occupant detection in all new cars. The Act passed through the Senate last year and now all new vehicles sold will incorporate this technology by 2025.

The Association of Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers include almost every car manufacturer in America, and they agreed to put rear-seat occupant alert systems in all passenger cars as standard, working ahead of the Hot Cars Act. In fact, you'll find these systems already in place in cars by Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Subaru, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, and Volkswagen.
This initiative has gone global as well with Europe's Euro NCAP applying Child Presence Detection systems in vehicle in all 2023 passenger models. Ford Middle East is now installing similar features in cars and trucks sold throughout the region.
We are already seeing a positive impact from this technology. The latest information from the US non-profit Kids and Cars tells us that the numbers of children left in vehicles is already dropping thanks to automakers who are already using this technology. In 2021 the number of child deaths due to being locked in hot cars dropped to 26 and there have been eleven incidents so far in 2022.

More Safety Tech

The latest tech in Rear Occupant Alert can be found in the new Genesis GV70 that utilizes ultrasonic sensors to recognize movement in the rear seat area. This is a great way to detect children and pets that are left behind. But more advanced technology is coming. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has cleared the way for automakers to install in-car radar that is so sensitive, it can detect a baby breathing.
"Automakers should be utilizing every technology available to prevent kids dying in hot cars and this provides yet another avenue for them," says Emily Thomas, automotive safety engineer at Consumer Reports. She says that the new radar-based systems have the potential to save many lives. New radar-based tech will be much more sophisticated than the ultrasonic sensors that are currently in use.
Remember that it doesn't have to be a hot day for a child to die in a locked car. Even on a 60-degree day, the temperature inside a car can reach 105 degrees.
Safety reminders
According to the American Academic of Pediatrics, here are some things you can do to prevent child heatstroke deaths in cars:
  • Always check the back seat and make sure all children are out of the car before locking it and walking away.
  • Avoid distractions while driving, especially cell phone use.
  • Be extra alert when there is a change in your routine, such as when someone else is driving.
  • Have your child care provider call if your child is more than 10 minutes late.
  • Put your cell phone, bag, or purse in the back seat, so you check the back seat when you arrive at your destination.
  • If someone else is driving your child, always check to make sure he has arrived safely.
  • Keep your car locked when it is parked to prevent a curious child from entering when no one is around.
  • Make sure children do not have easy access to your car keys.
  • Teach children that cars are not safe places to play.
  • Keep rear fold-down seats closed to prevent a child from crawling into the trunk from inside the car.
  • Remind children that cars, especially car trunks, should not be used for games like hide-and-seek.
Never leave a child in a vehicle unattended. If you see a child alone in a locked car, get them out immediately and call 911. Once the child is out of the car, spray them with cool water and stay with the child until help arrives.