Kesen Hu, who was not in the habit of taking his baby to day-care, was asked to do so one morning. As he started to drive, he got distracted by a cell phone call about a bill he had already paid. Frustrated, he turned into his office parking lot rather than continuing on to the day-care center. He parked and went to work, forgetting the sleeping child in the back seat. Sadly, by the time he realized his mistake a couple of hours later, it was too late. The baby was dead of hypothermia.

Story recounted from Art Markman, Ph.D., July 2010 Psychology Today

Every year young children will die inside of a hot car. It’s one of the more frustrating and tragic safety hazards out there, and it happens more often than most parents would imagine. On average, about one child dies each and every week after being left in a hot car. Sometimes it happens because busy, stressed out parents simply forget a child is in the back seat. It’s easier to do than you might think, and could happen to anyone under the right circumstances (or perhaps we should say wrong circumstances). Parents frequently share child care duties, and when someone’s mind is under severe stress, it’s all too easy to tune out other things and forget they have the baby with them.

Other tragedies occur because parents underestimate the danger. They leave a sleeping child in the car for “just a minute” to run a quick errand, and it takes a little bit longer than they planned on. Five minutes turn into 20 or 25, and they don’t realize that this is plenty of time for the temperature to rise to potentially fatal levels.

The temperatures inside a parked car

According to the CDC, when the temperature outside the car is 80 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature inside can be anywhere from 131 degrees to a scorching 172. Studies by the CDC have shown that temperatures inside a parked car can rise by as much as 20 degrees in the first 10 minutes alone.

Asphalt attracts heat, and the temperatures on asphalt can be as much as 10 degrees hotter than the temperature outside. This makes parking lots like heat skillets. The hottest time of the day tends to be around 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon, but the temps in many places can be deadly at all times of the day.

How quickly a child can succumb to the heat inside a car

In an illustration of how quickly it can happen, bystanders in Phoenix, Arizona, discovered a baby who was crying inside a hot car. By the time paramedics arrived about 5 minutes later, she had stopped breathing. She had been left in the car for no more than about half an hour; her mother had accidentally forgotten she was in the car. (CBS5 News Phoenix, 6-2-08)

If you live in an area such as Arizona, the temperatures routinely rise to 110 degrees throughout the summer. That’s hot enough, but when you park your car on the heated island of a parking lot, where temperatures can be 10 degrees higher, you’re already up to 120. This means that after just 10 minutes, temperatures inside the car can exceed 140 degrees – a dangerously high level for a young child. Kids are less able to regulate their body heat, and so they succumb to heat extremes faster. As you can see, under certain conditions it doesn’t take long for a mistake to turn disastrous.

Kids in hot cars: What citizens can do

  1. Make a habit of looking into every car as you walk your path through the parking lot to get to wherever you are going. If every citizen simply got into this habit, we might cut these tragedies substantially. If a parent has forgotten a child was with them, whether that child lives or dies is often determined by whether or not alert citizens spot that child and become their secondary safety net. Children have died in cars parked in the parking lots of busy restaurants or grocery stores as people walked back and forth right past them, without anyone paying attention. Let’s make sure scenes like this don’t continue to happen.
  1. If you happen to find a young child unattended in a car, wait by the child next to the car, and call authorities. If the child is clearly struggling, call 911.
  1. First responders say that if the child is in clear distress, you should break a window to get to them. Treat it like a drowning; you wouldn’t wait for paramedics to arrive before jumping in to save the baby. The same applies here: If a child is in distress and clearly in trouble, break a window (opposite and away from the baby) to get into the car and rescue her. Remember the baby who stopped breathing in the 5 minutes it took emergency responders to get there.

As we continue to meddle with our atmosphere and global warming accelerates, these kinds of deaths are only going to become more common. 2010 was a record-shattering year for these deaths, and the pace shows no signs of slowing. Children are going to need all the backup support that we as a community can give them.

Kids in hot cars: What parents can do so they don’t forget about the baby in the back seat

One of the most important things parents can do is NOT TO ASSUME it can’t happen to you. It can happen to anyone, including the best of parents, and especially to parents who are equally involved with their kids and share parenting duties. There are, however, several habits that can largely eliminate the risk. Find the one that works best for you:

  1. Purchase a large teddy bear to sit in your car seat. When the child is the car, move the teddy bear to the front seat as a reminder that baby is in the back.
  1. Form the habit of doing a walk-around of the car every time you get out to go somewhere, and again before you get in the car to drive away (which prevents back over accidents as well). Get a little obsessive compulsiveness in this regard: Pick 3 things within your car that you look at each time you get out. Practice the routine at home to get into the habit…it may take a couple dozen run-throughs.
  1. Make a habit of keeping your purse, cell phone, or employee ID in the back seat of the car, so that you are forced to look in the back before leaving. Leaving your cell phone back there can also reduce the dangerous urge to take phone calls while driving.
  1. Recruit your day care provider as a backup plan. Instruct her to call you or your partner whenever your child does not arrive at the usual time. (Realistically, however, you should understand that day care centers are managing dozens or hundreds of kids whose parent’s schedules and drop-off times vary from day to day, so this is not the best back-up plan. If parents can forget about one child, imagine how easy it could be to forget to call amidst the hustle and bustle of caring for hundreds. It doesn’t hurt to ask, however, especially if you use a home care provider with just a few kids and maintain a consistent schedule of dropping the child off.)