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Why Do So Many Children Die in Hot Cars? 

This post previously appeared on Care2.com, but I'm reposting it here as we re-enter the period of warmer weather. Each year, tragically, this issue comes up again. Be aware and be prepared.

Safe Kids USA shared a sad milestone three years ago in June 2011. The number of children to die from heat stroke after being left alone in a car had reached 500. In the United States, an average of 38 children die this way each year.

The Danger of Leaving Kids Alone in the Car

According to Safe Kids USA, “heat stroke (also known as hyperthermia) occurs when a body’s thermostat is overleaded with heat; children are at a great risk of this as their body heats up 3 to 5 times faster than adults.”

This Public Safety Announcement from Kids and Cars warns parents of the danger of forgetting your child.


Are Rearfacing Seats To Blame?

Car safety experts know that it is safest for babies and small children to be in a rear-facing seat in the car. In the event of a crash, they are best protected that way. In March 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its car seat recommendations. The new policy recommends that children remain rear-facing until the age of 2, unless they reach the maximum height and weight of the car seat at an earlier age.

Dr. Dennis Durbin, the lead author on the AAP’s new policy statement, explains that: “A rear-facing child safety seat does a better job of supporting the head, neck and spine of infants and toddlers in a crash, because it distributes the force of the collision over the entire body.” The AAP says that deaths of children in motor vehicle crashes are decreasing, but are still the leading cause of death of children ages four and older.

While experts agree that a rear-facing seat is the best place for the child to be in the case of a collision, some experts are now questioning whether that puts them at a greater risk of being forgotten in a car. According to Parent Central (article no longer available), “the last time experts pushed a new campaign to put more children in rear-facing seats — in the 1990s, to cut the chances of being killed by air bags — the number of children who died in hot cars spiked.” They go on to explain that more children died from being forgotten in cars than from air bags.

It Won’t Happen to Me

Most parents believe this could never happen to them. In a Safe Kids press release, Reggie McKinnon, a father who left his 8 month old in the car when he went to work, was quoted as saying: “Before this accident, every time I would read of a child dying in a parked car of hyperthermia, I too would ask, ‘how could they forget their child?’ I would never do that. That only happens to people who are uneducated, drunk, drug-addicts, not me.”

Parent Central (link no longer available) reported that it is often parents who are tired, distracted, stressed or who have made changes to their routine who end up forgetting a child in the car. It can be a costly mistake. These parents not only lose their baby, but they are also often perceived as monsters and sometimes even charged with manslaughter and child abuse.

What Can Parents Do?

Although the concern about rear-facing seats is understandable, I don’t think that the solution to one safety problem needs to come from ignoring another safety issue. If parents want to keep their children as safe as possible in the car, but also remember to take them out when they get to their destination, what can they do?

Parent Central also reported that there are companies developing technical solutions to help parents remember that their child is in the backseat. This includes simpler solutions like playing “Twinkle Twinkle” when the car stops as well as more technically advanced ones that would sound an alarm if a child is left in the backseat. 

Other parents have developed their own approaches, such as leaving their purse in the back seat below the car seat so that they have to look in the back to get it out.

When our children were rearfacing, we used a child mirror that allowed us to see them whenever we looked in the rear view mirror. For a driver following normal safety precautions and looking in the rear view mirror regularly, this means that there would be a constant reminder that the child is there. While we didn’t purchase the mirror specifically to ensure that we never forgot the baby, I’m sure that having it did contribute to remembering that the baby was there.

What do you do?

What do you do to help ensure that you won’t forget your baby or toddler in the car?

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Reader Comments (12)

When I was pregnant, a woman in my town forgot her 10 month old in the car. It was her turn to bring donuts to a meeting, so stopping at the grocery store threw her off her routine and while she got the donuts out of the trunk she didn't see her daughter still in the seat.

I have a van, and use the automatic door opening buttons to open all doors every time I get out, even when I think I'm alone. I then hand close the doors, checking each set. My older 2 have long since been able to unbuckle themselves and get out of the car on their own, but I worry constantly my just turned 4yo will get inside the car to play and become trapped like little Ava- http://www.sheyerosemeyerphotography.com/blog/ava/

The best article I've read on the topic is this- long but very worthwhile: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/27/AR2009022701549.html

June 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

Agree with Lisa, Gene Weingarten's article is outstanding. I'm going to try to make a hyperlink for it (crossing fingers): Fatal Distraction. The piece earned the author a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2010.

June 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKris

this terrifies me. It's so easy to get thrown off and we're so ingrained in our routines.
I've started leaving my purse in the back for this reason.

June 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterShaunacey

I had a rental car once during my son's infancy. For the three days I had it, there was no way to mount the mirrors I had easily in the back seat--mirrors that kept him always front and center to me. So I would only allow myself to play the lullaby or kid's tunes stations on Pandora until I got him safely to his destination.

I was so terrified of forgetting to take him to daycare on those mornings he was "sleeping in" in the backseat that there were times I accidentally turned down the road of his daycare when he was actually home with dad.

June 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

These stories break my heart, and it can truly happen to ANY of us.
Another tactic that I've read about is for those who use childcare; if the child isn't dropped off by a certain time, the caregivers must call the parents to ask why. Every single child must be accounted for, every single day. Where I live there has been a lot of talk about making this protocol mandatory, and some childcare centers have complained that they have enough work as it is. They need to understand that just one phone call could save a life.

June 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterK

While I understand it may be more work to call parents who don't show up, it is less work than actually caring for the child. It is a phone call that could save a babies life! There could be other reasons why the child isn't there.....perhaps there has been an accident or someone is hurt at home and can't get to the phone. I don't understand how someone could forget to drop off the baby but I know it happens and caregivers have a responsibility to call or text and get a response from a parent that the child is safe with someone. I have a home daycare and you can bet that I would be calling or texting the parents to find out where the child is.

June 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterShelley

I think if I had a young baby now, I would set an alarm to go off on my work calendar for the days that I was doing baby daycare drop off duty. It would say "Baby?" I have a smart phone so it would go off on my phone and my desktop computer. Anyone with any kind of reminder app probably uses it for a billion things ( I have one for Monday nights so we remember to pull the recycling to the curb.) I do have one set for the school bus arrival as that is a job my spouse, older teen and I all share. Shared jobs are likely to fall through the cracks, so we all have a synched calendar. When my younger kids were rear facing in the car, it was pre-smart phone but I think it would be a really useful tool. Maybe someone could invent an app that helped with this? I think the more tools we give to parents, the better. Workplaces could also post reminders at entrances on very hot days, "How did childcare drop off go?" and things like that - just visual cues.

June 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

This is so scary and the stories are always so sad... I love the idea about setting reminders for yourself on your phone, or in your work calendar. The idea about leaving your purse in the back seat is a great idea also. I think that would be the easiest to starting implementing.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

I do think it has a little to do with the rear-facing carseat; however, there will always be parental neglect.

November 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAprilCar

It's crazy to me that this actually happens. So sad! We have to always account for our children!

March 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMary

Recently, statistics show that such cases have become regular, so it is worth keeping children in the car at the legislative level.

June 21, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterediting

That really is indeed frightful and that the stories are so miserable... I really like the concept about setting reminders to on your own mobile, or on work calendar. About leaving your handbag the idea is a excellent idea. I believe that are to starting executing the simplest.

November 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCar Covers

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