What should you do if you see a child alone inside a hot car?

·5 min read
Mayte Torres

On Monday, authorities reported that a 5-year-old boy in Texas died after being left in a sweltering car for several hours as the child’s family prepared for his sibling’s birthday party.

Earlier this month, a 3-month-old boy died in Upper Saint Clair, Pennsylvania, after he was left in his parents’ car “for several hours,” police said. And in May, an unresponsive 1-year-old child was discovered in a car outside a day care center in Memphis, Tennessee. The 1-year-old was declared dead after being taken to a local hospital; the temperature in Memphis that day had been 91 degrees.

Hot car deaths generally increase in the summer months, but experts caution they can occur anytime at temperatures that may be lower than people expect.

“Heatstroke can happen when the temperatures are as low at 57 degrees outside, and a car can heat up by 20 degrees Fahrenheit in just 10 minutes,” Dr. Kira Sieplinga, a pediatric hospitalist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Michigan, told TODAY Parents.

“There’s really not a safe amount of time to leave a child in the car,” Sieplinga added. “And children can heat up about three to five times faster than adults.”

Hot car deaths happen everywhere

Since 1998, 38 children in the U.S. die in hot cars each year on average, according to the National Safety Council. In the recent past, though, the United States saw record numbers of hot car deaths.

In both 2018 and 2019, 53 children died in hot cars — “historic highs,” according to Amy Artuso, senior program manager of mobility safety at the National Safety Council. In 2020, 25 children died in hot cars, and 23 died in hot cars the following year. Artuso said fewer people commuting to work and day care during the pandemic might have led to the lower numbers.

In some hot car fatalities, parents forget that children are inside vehicles and accidentally leave them there. In other situations, children crawl into vehicles and become trapped. And then some parents do not realize that leaving their child in the car even for a few minutes can contribute to heatstroke and death. Experts say most parents are not leaving children in cars because they’re bad or negligent.

“(It) typically is not with malintent. That is, more often people think they’re just going to run a quick errand and they don’t realize that children are three to five times more susceptible to heat-related illness as adults, that their bodies don’t cool as quickly as adults,” Artuso told TODAY Parents. “These deaths have occurred in every month of the year. It’s not just a warm weather month issue.”

Even leaving the windows open cannot help children, who heat up faster than adults do.

“They can’t handle that change in temperature,” Sieplinga said. “The biggest risk of death occurs when kids are getting overheated.”

Related story: Hot car deaths: 7 tips for preventing child deaths in hot cars

She adds that while people assume that hot car deaths occur mostly in the south, children have died of heatstroke in cars in every state.

“Even those of us who are in northern climates, like Michigan, we still have warm days,” Sieplinga said. “That greenhouse effect can really increase the temperature inside the cars.”

How to help a child in a hot car

What should people do if they spot a child in a car?

Experts first recommend trying to find the owner of the car. If the car is at a grocery store or mall, people might want to go inside and ask for an announcement to be made to find the car’s owner. If the car is on a street, people could ask other bystanders if they saw where the owner of the car went.

But if finding the owner doesn’t work, people should call 911 and consider getting into the car — especially if the child isn’t responsive, has stopped sweating and their skin is flushed.

“There are 21 states that have unattended child laws and there are even more states that have Good Samaritan laws,” Artuso said. “In this situation, we want to encourage people to take action even if that does mean breaking a window to get the child out.”

Sieplinga agreed.

“We still have a responsibility if we see a child unattended in a car,” she said. “You really should tell 911 that it could be an emergency and let them know what’s going on and then consider getting the child out of the car — especially if they’re not responsive.”

After getting a child out of a hot vehicle, help cool the child off and get them into a shaded or cooler place.

“Spray that child with cool water or use a cool wet rag to cool them down if you do feel the child is at risk for heatstroke, and stay with them until help arrives,” Sieplinga advised. “Don’t use ice because that puts them at risk for frostbite or injury.”

Children who go to the hospital for heatstroke often need a cool environment and IV fluids to help hydrate them. Parents should seek help for children parents suspect might have heatstroke if they notice any of the following symptoms, including:

  • Acting confused

  • A change in mental status

  • Acting lethargic and disoriented

  • Being lightheaded or dizzy

  • Complaints of visual changes

  • Headaches

The National Safety Council offers a free online course that takes about 15 minutes to complete and provides education on hot cars and children.

“It’s important for everybody to become more familiar with the situation because 100% of these deaths are preventable,” Artuso said. “It’s just raising awareness that it can happen to anyone.”

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