This article was first published in July 2015 and has been updated.
It’s a story that happens all too often.
In April 2021, a North Carolina mother left her 5-month-old in the car for hours. A 3-year-old in Indiana died after being strapped into his carseat all day in a hot car. Two kids in Texas died in separate incidents in June 2019.
There are many ways this nightmare scenario happens.
"Kids are very, very curious...They get into the car on their own," said Janette Fennell, president and founder of Kids and Cars, a nonprofit focused on improving child safety around cars.
"For some reason, when people leave their car in the driveway or in the garage, they feel comfortable letting their guard down," Fennell added. "You should never leave your vehicle at home unlocked."
Hot car death statistics
In 2018, a record 54 children died of vehicular heatstroke and 53 died in 2019. During the worldwide pandemic in 2020, 25 children lost their lives in hot cars. Two children have died so far in 2021, and nearly 1,000 children have died of vehicular heatstroke since 1990.
Most of the children are mistakenly forgotten. Some of the children crawl into the car without the parents’ knowledge and get stuck. And, a small percentage of children die because their parents believe it’s safe to leave them.
Is it possible to die in a hot car?
Infants and toddlers are most at risk — 87 percent of children who have died in hot cars are under age 3.
“It is quite dangerous for children and infants as they don’t have as great of an ability to regulate their temperature,” says Dr. Richard Saladino, chief of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. “If the outside temperature [is] 90, temperatures [in the car] can increase from 80 degrees to 130 degrees in 10 to 15 minutes.”
This heat causes the core body temperature to increase to 106 degrees, leading to heat stoke.
“The temperatures rise very quickly, rise to such extremes where the body can no longer compensate,” says Dr. Amy Sniderman, pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Children’s.
Fennell believes overwhelmed, overtired parents forget their children. Many parents believe they have dropped their children off at daycare only to find later the child was still in the car. Or parents don’t realize their kids climbed into the car.
Hot car death prevention
Fennell recommends these 7 tips that every parent should follow:
1. Look before you lock.
Open the backdoor and look in the backseat to assure that everyone is out of the car (even if you think you are childless).
2. Keep something you need in the backseat.
Put your cell phone, briefcase, computer, lunch, ID badge, left shoe, or anything essential to your daily routine beside your child.
3. Travel with a furry companion.
Keep a stuffed animal in the car seat. When baby is in the seat, the stuffed animal rides shotgun. The furry passenger serves as a reminder that baby’s in the back.
4. Always lock the doors.
Even if the car is in the garage, keep the doors locked to prevent curious children from getting into the car.
5. Put the keys and fobs away.
Kids might want to play with keys and be able to get into the car without parents knowledge.
6. Have a plan with childcare provider.
If your child does not show up to daycare or school without prior notice, someone should call to locate child.
7. If you see something, do something.
If you see a child alone in a car, do not hesitate to call 911.
“The biggest mistake people make is thinking it can’t happen to them,” Fennell says.
“When you say ‘this can’t happen to you’ then you have already decided you don’t need to use these safety tips … it is easier to blame others than to understand that we are all vulnerable.”