by Brent Hearn •
Though it’s not officially summer for a few more days, it’s been “summertime” for weeks now for many of us. But while the rise in temperatures can mean vacations, backyard grilling, and time with family, it can also spell tragedy if a child is left inside a vehicle unattended.
When a parent hears yet another heartbreaking news story about a child dying after being left in a hot car, it can be easy for them to place blame. That could never happen to me, they think. What kind of parent forgets their child?!
The answer? Any parent can.
While many think of leaving a child unattended in a vehicle as a negligent act, experts stress that it’s often a matter of memory, not morality. Hot car deaths can occur due to a variety of factors, including stress, lack of sleep, or a change in routine. Sometimes, parents don’t forget at all: the tragedy is a result of a child climbing into an unlocked car without a parent’s knowledge.
Here are just a few sobering statistics from noheatstroke.org:
- Last year (2022), there were 33 pediatric vehicular heatstroke deaths in the United States.
- This year (2023), there have already been six pediatric vehicular heatstroke deaths in the U.S. at the time of this article.
- More than half of the children who died from vehicular heatstroke in the U.S. from 1998–2022 were under two years of age.
To help prevent the unthinkable:
- Keep the important stuff in the backseat.
What do you need to have with you at all times? Your wallet? Your phone? Your left shoe? (Seriously. How likely are you to walk into work or the grocery store without one of your shoes?) Whatever you keep on your person when you’re out and about—whatever you feel “naked” without—keep it in the backseat to remind you of the presence of a (possibly quiet and sleeping) child.
- Keep the doors of your vehicle locked at all times.
Yes, even at home. Children are curious—sometimes stealthily so. The only time they should be in the vehicle is if you know they’re in the vehicle. By the same token, keep keys and fobs somewhere they can’t access. (Even those who don’t have children should keep their vehicles locked; children can wander off and get into neighbors’ cars without anyone knowing.)
- Place a stuffed animal in your child’s car seat.
When you place your child in the car seat, move the toy to the front passenger seat; doing so will serve as a visual reminder that there’s a child in the back.
- Team up with your childcare provider.
Develop a plan with your school, daycare, or other childcare provider in the event your child doesn’t show up when expected. Always give notice if your child will be absent. If your child doesn’t show up, make sure the appropriate party knows who to immediately contact. Have additional contacts in place in case they’re unable to reach you.
- If you see a child alone in a car, take action.
Call 911 immediately. In just minutes, the temperature of the interior of a vehicle can reach dangerous levels.
- Don’t leave a child in a hot car. Ever.
It’s not always a matter of forgetting; sometimes people think it’ll be fine if it’s “just for a few minutes.” According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a child’s body temperature rises three to five times faster than an adult’s. Even if you think I’ll be right back, there are simply too many things that can distract you or keep you away. Again, it only takes minutes for a situation to turn tragic. Just don’t do it. Not at all. Not ever.
There are a number of higher-tech methods on the market and in development to alert parents if children have been left in a vehicle unattended. From mobile apps to onboard detection systems (including one advanced concept that can detect heartbeats and breathing using 4D imaging radar), this tech should be considered complements to—and not replacements for—other safety measures. The more failsafes, the better. But technology fails, and you don’t want any tech solution to lull you into a false sense of security.
Perhaps the most important tool in your toolbox is humility. Thinking it can’t happen to your child (or a child you’re responsible for) makes you less likely to take the precautions that ensure it doesn’t. Accepting that anyone is susceptible to distraction, fatigue, and stress is the first step in preventing an unimaginable loss.
Please read through the resources below to educate yourself on how to keep your children safe.
Consumer Reports: Research Shows That Anyone Could Forget a Kid in a Hot Car
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: Prevent Hot Car Deaths
noheatstroke.org: Heatstroke Deaths of Children in Vehicles
Today’s Parent: How to make sure you never forget your kid in a hot car