Moving or parked, cars pose a constant threat to children. During the summer months, the interior temperature of a car can reach fatal levels within a few minutes. Keep your kids safe with these must-know tips.
The Grim Statistics
In 2003 alone, 42 children died of heat stroke because they had been left inside a vehicle. In July and August 2003, 22 children tragically died after being trapped in car trunks. Leaving children unattended in or around vehicles is a serious problem. More than one thousand cases involving injury or death have been documented so far. Those injuries and deaths were caused by heat stroke, a vehicle being put in motion by a child, children being hit by vehicles backing up, children choking while alone in a car, being kidnapped, toxic fumes, activation of automatic power controls, or being trapped in car trunks. Children should never be left unattended in or around vehicles.
(Source: Kids ‘N Cars, 2004.)
When it’s hot outside the temperature in a car interior can reach dangerous and sometimes fatal levels in a matter of minutes. Young children – especially infants – are more sensitive to variations in temperature than adults and are the most vulnerable to quick temperature changes.
In addition to the children who die from motor vehicle crashes, many children die every summer from heat exposure when left in cars. From 1996 to 2000, more than 120 children– most three and younger–died from heat stroke after being trapped in cars. Even children who survive serious heat exposure often have severe disabilities as a result of irreversible brain damage from lack of oxygen.
Studies show that regardless of the color of the car, its seats, or if the windows are cracked, interior temperatures can rise from 96 degrees to 150 degrees in a matter of 20 minutes, with a sharp rise in the first 10 minutes. With such hot temperatures, a few moments can have drastic consequences.
Infants and young children in hot cars can experience heat stroke within only a matter of minutes. Heat stroke causes children's skin to become red and dry. They become unable to produce the sweat needed to reduce their core body temperature; the heart rate quickens and they eventually become confused and lose consciousness before the organ systems fail. When there is not enough oxygen in the car for a long enough period of time, children die of asphyxiation, as well as heat exposure.
Leaving Children Unattended in Hot Vehicles
Small children and infants are more sensitive to extreme heat. According to Dr. Martin Eichelberger, director of trauma surgery at Children’s National Medical Center and president of the National SAFE KIDS Campaign, "Heat rapidly overwhelms the body’s ability to regulate temperature. In a closed environment, the body can go into shock and circulation to vital organs will begin to fail."
Heat exhaustion can occur at temperatures above 90 degrees and heat stroke can occur when temperatures rise above 105 degrees. When a child is enclosed in a hot car, the child loses body fluids and salts through sweat-ing, causing heat exhaustion. If not treated immediately, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke. In heat stroke, a child can no longer sweat. The body temperature rises to deadly levels leading to severe damage to the brain, liver and kidneys, or even death.
Keep in mind that a car is basically a metal box. The hot sun can turn this metal box into an oven. Nobody would ever consider leaving a child in an oven. When the outside temperature is 93 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperatures inside a car can reach 125 degrees in just 20 minutes and 140 degrees in 40 minutes even if a window is cracked open. A car parked in direct sunlight can reach 131- 172 degrees Fahrenheit, even after only fifteen minutes. At that temperature it only takes a matter of minutes for children to die or suffer permanent disability.
(North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, 1999)
Of the reported deaths, more than a third involved children who had crawled into unlocked cars during play and then perished in the sweltering heat. With children that are naturally curious and often lacking in fear, unlocked cars can pose serious risks. Once a child gets into a vehicle, they often do not have the developmental skills to get themselves out again.
(University of Michigan Health System)
General Motors and SAFEKIDS have teamed up to launch the “Never Leave Your Child Alone” campaign to inform parents and caregivers about the dangers of leaving children alone in a car. They want to teach parents that because a child’s core body temperature increases three to five times faster than an adult’s, even a quick errand could be fatal.
To make sure your child is safe in your vehicle this summer:
Never leave a child unattended in a motor vehicle, even with the window slightly open. On a sunny day, the temperatures inside a vehicle can reach potentially deadly levels in minutes.
- Lock car doors and trunks – even at home – and keep keys out of children’s reach.
- Watch kids closely around cars, particularly when loading and unloading.
- Make sure all children leave the vehicle when you reach your destination. If you’re afraid you might forget a sleeping infant in the car, leave the diaper bag by your purse or briefcase on the front seat.
- If the car has been parked in the heat, make sure the carseat and seat buckles aren’t too hot before sitting and securing your child in a seat.
Return to our Summer Safety Survival Guide.