Hot Car Dangers: How to Prevent Child Deaths

A young girl inside a car.
(Image credit: Konstantin Sutyagin/

At least five U.S. children have died in overheated cars this year, but experts say there are a number of steps that parents can take to prevent such tragedies.

The most recent death occurred last week when a 3-year-old boy in Idaho climbed into a unlocked car at his home, and was later found by his family, according to the Associated Press. Just nine days earlier, an 18-month-old girl in Florida died when her mother, a teacher, left the toddler in a parked car outside the school all day,  The Washington Post reported.

Unfortunately, such tragedies happen every year, often in the summer months. Since 1998, an average of 37 U.S. children have died each year when they were left in cars that overheated, according to a website that tracks hot car deaths; the site is run by Jan Null, a lecturer in meteorology and climate science at San Jose State University.

Often, these accidents happen when parents forget that their children are in the vehicle, as was the case with the Florida death. Among 636 children who died in hot cars over the last two decades, about half were forgotten by an adult who was taking care of them, according to San Jose State University.

Being busy, distracted or preoccupied with the workday, or trying to multitask, may cause some parents to forget about their children in the back of the car.

"When caregivers are busy and they're focusing on many things at once — they're in a hurry, they become distracted — I think that is a factor in some of the instances of this happening," said Jennifer Allison, director of the Children's Safety Network, an organization that works to prevent childhood injuries.

Some parents may also forget their children on days when there is a change in their daily routine — for example, when a parent must drop off the child at daycare, but that is usually the other parent's job, Allison said. In a 2005 study published in the journal Injury Prevention, researchers looked at 171 child deaths that occurred in parked cars, and found that nearly 19 percent of these deaths happened because a parent went to work without first dropping their child off at daycare.

These accidents can also happen when children are left unattended, and they find their way into an unlocked car while playing. In the Injury Prevention study, this happened in 27 percent of cases.

Less commonly, parents intentionally leave their children in the car, in some cases because the parents do not realize how hot the car can get. Some parents in the Injury Prevention study said they left their children in the car because they were asleep, and the parents didn't want to disturb the children.

"It takes only about 10 minutes for a car to reach deadly temperatures on an 80-degree [Fahrenheit] day," Allison told Live Science. (That translates to 27 degrees Celsius.) "I think many people don't realize just how quickly a car can reach very dangerously high temperatures." [7 Common Summer Health Concerns]

People can experience heat stroke when their body's core temperature reaches 104 degrees F (40 degrees C) or higher, according to the Mayo Clinic. In a 2010 study of 231 children who died in parked cars, the children's average core body temperature was 107 degrees F (42 degrees C).

Even on a relatively cool day, when temperatures are in the low 70s F (low 20s C), experiments show that a car can reach 117 degrees F (47 degrees C) within an hour, according to a 2005 study published in the journal Pediatrics.

To prevent child deaths in parked cars, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends the following:

  • Never leave children by themselves in a car, even if you have the windows open or the air conditioning on.
  • Create reminders for yourself to check the back seat of the car, such as placing a briefcase or a purse in the back.
  • Ask the childcare provider to let you know if the child doesn't show up at day care as expected.
  • Keep car keys out of children's reach and keep car doors locked; teach children not to play in the car.

Follow Rachael Rettner @RachaelRettner. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.