Children Are Dying in Hot Cars, But This Can Be Prevented—Here’s How

little girl looking out from a car window

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Around 38 children die in hot cars each year after becoming trapped inside the vehicle.
  • Kids aren't able to get themselves out of a car the way adults can and also become overheated far more quickly.
  • These tragic deaths are preventable if you follow some proven strategies.

Summer is right around the corner, and warmer weather is generally a welcome change. Still, high temperatures come with very real circumstantial risks for kids.

According to Safe Kids Worldwide (SKW), a national nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing injuries and death to children from vehicle-related incidents, an average of 38 kids die in hot cars each year. In both 2018 and 2019, 53 children died from heatstroke in hot cars. 

Verywell talked to several experts about why this happens and how to prevent it.

Why Do Kids Get Trapped in Hot Cars? 

"It’s very simple: Adults don't get trapped in hot cars like kids do," says board-certified pediatrician and co-founder of The Car Seat Lady, Alisa Baer, MD. "If an adult was trapped, they would die too—but adults know how to unbuckle their seat belt and open the car door."

Dr. Baer shares some more sobering statistics: About two-thirds of the kids who die in hot cars are strapped into a car seat and can't unbuckle themselves. Of those children, half are left on purpose, and half are left accidentally. And about one-third of the kids who die in hot cars enter the car (presumably to get something they left in there or to play) unbeknownst to the adults watching them and get stuck in the car and unable to get out.

Alisa Baer, MD

It’s very simple: Adults don't get trapped in hot cars like kids do. If an adult was trapped, they would die too—but adults know how to unbuckle their seat belt and open the car door.

— Alisa Baer, MD

SKW adds that human limitations, not carelessness, are a major contributor to children being unknowingly left in cars. For instance, a conscientious parent may intend to drop a child off at childcare or school, using what is known as "prospective" memory for that intended result. But when the routine of driving to that destination begins, the brain can revert to "habit memory" or "autopilot," particularly if schedules have been disrupted.

If the child is not visible in the back seat, the parent may forget they are there. In many heatstroke cases, the brain can even create a false memory that the parent or caregiver has dropped the child off as planned.

Why Do Kids Die in Hot Cars?

Cars left in the hot sun warm up very quickly, easily reaching temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in as little as 10 minutes, says Robert Hamilton, MD, FAAP, pediatrician, and host of the podcast The Hamilton Review: Where Kids and Culture Collide.

"The error that people make is underestimating the time of a particular task. It’s easy to think, 'I’m just going to run into the market for bread and milk'... figuring that this chore will take two minutes," Dr. Hamilton says. "But it doesn’t, and the tragedy of this inaccurate calculation can be devastating."

Robert Hamilton, MD, FAAP

Kids have more skin area than mass and thus, they are more susceptible to heating up more rapidly than adults.

— Robert Hamilton, MD, FAAP

The reason children are particularly at risk for overheating in a car has to do with their greater surface to weight size. "Kids have more skin area than mass and thus, they are more susceptible to heating up more rapidly than adults," Dr. Hamilton explains. "Studies show that young children warm up three to five times faster than adults."  

This tendency toward poikilothermia (body temperature changes with temperature changes in the environment) is what puts children at a very high potential for heat injury. "It should also be remembered that a temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit can induce heatstroke and sustained temperatures greater than 107 degrees Fahrenheit, even for a short time, are often fatal," Dr. Hamilton adds.

Daniel Ganjian, MD, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, adds that children sweat less and have lower total body volume and lower cardiac function than adults—all things that prevent them from dissipating heat as efficiently.

They're also slower to acclimatize to hotter temperatures, have higher metabolic rates (which produce more heat), and are more likely to become dehydrated because they can't gauge their thirst as well as adults can.

Preventing Deaths in Hot Cars

SKW points out that during the pandemic, when more people stayed home, the number of children unknowingly left in vehicles was lower. However, the number of incidents of small children getting into parked cars and becoming trapped remained consistently high.

But every death could have been prevented using proven strategies and tips. SKW recommends "Park. Look. Lock," which means each time you park your car, you look in the front seat and back seat for children. When you've confirmed that all children are out of the car, lock all doors to stop them from getting back inside and becoming trapped.

Additional strategies and tips include:

  • Never leave a young child alone in a car, not even for a very short time.
  • Keep car doors and trunks locked and keep key fobs out of reach.
  • Put something you’ll need soon after arrival at your destination in the back seat of the car, like your purse, briefcase, or cellphone.
  • Place a stuffed toy on the front seat as a visual cue reminding you to "Park. Look. Lock."
  • Make arrangements for your childcare center to call you if your child is unexpectedly absent after the day begins.
  • If you see a child alone in a car, call 911.

It's also very important to always have your car locked when it's in your driveway so that an innocent child will not go and play in the car without supervision, Dr. Ganijan adds.  He recommends using a car that has backseat sensors, such as the Honda Odyssey minivan, to remind the driver that there's a sleeping child in the back.

What to Do If You Think Your Child Has Heatstroke

Heatstroke is a medical emergency, and can be life-threatening or result in serious, long-term complications even if it's treated immediately. So it's absolutely crucial that you get your child to an emergency room as fast as possible, Dr. Ganijan says. 

"While you're waiting for an ambulance, take your child's clothes off and immerse them in cold water (or tepid water if cold water is not feasible)," Dr. Ganijan adds. "If total immersion isn't an option, spray your child with water and put on a fan or air conditioner. Place ice packs in the neck, armpit, and groin. The doctor will decide if any other measures need to be taken."

What This Means For You

Numerous children die in hot cars every year due to heatstroke, and it's imperative for adults to educate themselves on how to prevent this from occurring.

No child should ever be left alone in a car, even if you are just running in to grab eggs and milk. There's no way for you to know how hot it is in the car and your child's life could be at risk.

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more. Claire is passionate about raising awareness for mental health issues and helping people experiencing them not feel so alone.