Danger! Kids left in Hot Cars

Every summer in particular, the media reports a handful of heartbreaking and preventable deaths that occur when children are left unattended in hot cars.

As of July 12, there have been 21 such deaths in the U.S. this year, and 466 deaths since 1998, according to statistics compiled by Jan Null, a meteorologist at Golden Gate Weather Services and a geosciences professor at San Francisco State University.

There may be a number of reasons for not wanting to take their child in and out of their cumbersome car seat for what they believe will be a quick stop. Or they may actually forget that their sleeping child is in the back seat. It also happens that children lock themselves in a car by accident, says Christopher McStay, MD, emergency room physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City.

Prevent hot car casualties by taking at lest these precautions:

  1. There must be No Exceptions, No Matter How Brief

    It is never OK to leave kids or pets in a car -- even with the windows down. It is an absolute no-no. Your car is a greenhouse and temperatures can get exceedingly hot in minutes. There is no safe amount of time to leave children alone in the car. Kids are more susceptible and at higher risk for heat-related illness and injury than adults because their bodies make more heat relative to their size and their abilities to cool through sweating are not as developed as adults. As a result, just a few minutes can be extremely dangerous -- even fatal -- for a small child.

  2. Know What Can Go Wrong

    According to Christopher Haines, DO, director of pediatric emergency medicine at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, on a day that is just 72 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature can increase by 30 to 40 degrees in an hour, and 70% of this increase occurs the first 30 minutes.

    Heat stroke may occur when body temperature passes 104 degrees Fahrenheit. That overwhelms the brain's temperature control, causing symptoms such as dizziness, disorientation, agitation, confusion, sluggishness, seizure, loss of consciousness, and/or death.

  3. Get Involved – Be Aware

    If you happen to be are a passerby and you see a child unattended in a car, call the emergency number immediately – don't delay, especially on a hot day.

  4. Remind Yourself

    Some parents or caregivers may forget that there is a sleeping child in the back seat and go about their business.

    Think it can't happen to you? It can, says Mark McDaniel, PhD, a Psychology Professor at the university of Washington at St. Louis. Here's how:

    "The memory is faced with a challenge when it needs to remember something that you don't do every day, such as take your child to school,” McDaniel says. For instance, maybe Mom usually does that, but for some reason, Dad takes the task for the day."

    "If the child has fallen asleep in their car seat, which is often behind the driver's seat, there is no visual information to remind you that there is a kid in your care. You need a cue,” McDaniel says. "These are not bad parents, but people who don't have a good understanding of their memory system."

    What can you do? Give yourself reminders. Keep telling yourself, out loud, to remember the child. And give yourself visual cues. For example, "place your briefcase beside your child so you must grab it before going to work, and will see your child,” he suggests. Or put your diaper bag on the seat next to you, so that you're reminded that you have the child with you.

  5. Check That They Arrived

    If your children take school buses or other modes of transportation, make sure that the transportation company follows established safety protocols, such as a bus driver walking through the bus to make sure no child is left onboard at the end of the route.