Is it dangerous to leave a child in a hot car?
Every summer, across the country summer temperatures spike above a hundred degrees. What can seem like just a few minutes in a car with the windows down can quickly become a life threatening situation. As studies have shown, even with the windows rolled down, cool temperatures outside can still heat a car to dangerous temperatures. Because children and pets don’t have the ability to unlock car doors or escape car seats, they are the highest risk of dying while trapped in a hot car.
"Non-traffic injuries and fatalities present an important threat to the safety and lives of very young children," says Amber Rollins, Director of KidsandCars.org. "Continued education, engineering modifications, advocacy, and legislation can help continue to prevent these incidents and must be incorporated in overall child vehicle safety initiatives."
Table of contents
- National hot car statistics
- Hot car death statistics for children
- Hot car death statistics for pets
- Hot car deaths by state
- Studies on outside temperatures on hot cars
- Good samaritan laws by state
- Insurance implications
- FAQs about the dangers of hot cars
In 2019, The Zebra ran a national survey to further examine a 2002 study regarding the effect of high temperatures inside vehicles. The study found rolling down a window a bit, or "cracking" open the window, did not help to cool down the car's interior. The Zebra's survey aimed to discover if people still held the assumption that this behavior helped to mitigate the threat of potential heatstroke to a victim left inside the car.
- 13.4% of people believed cracking open a window would eliminate the threat.
- 24.8% of people believed cracking open a window would mitigate the threat.
- 61.9% of people believed cracking open a window had no effect on the threat.
Our survey on the impact of in-vehicle heat revealed:
- 15.3% of men between the ages of 55 and 64 thought cracking a window would eliminate the threat of heatstroke completely.
- 17% of women aged between 25 and 34 believed cracking a window would eliminate the threat of heatstroke completely.
- 25.4% of people from Southern states believed cracking a window would mitigate the threat of heatstroke completely.
- 57.9% of people from states in the Midwest correctly guessed that cracking a window does not affect the threat of heatstroke.
- Pediatric Vehicular Stroke (PVS), also known as child heatstroke, has killed 38 children already in last year in 2019.
- In 2018, 52 children died in the U.S. while trapped in a hot car.
- Since 1998, 813 pediatric vehicular stroke fatalities have occurred.
- For children in the United States under age 14, heatstroke is the second most common cause of death, after car crashes.
- Children’s body temperature heats three to five times faster than adults', making a child more likely to die in a hot car.
- Between 1998 and 2002, California saw the most cases of pediatric vehicular stroke, followed by Texas and Florida.
- In 2019, most US child heatstroke deaths occurred in Texas and Florida.
- From 2018-2019, 78 pets suffered heat stroke and died in a hot car.
- Dogs with broad, short skulls (also known as brachycephalic breeds) are especially susceptible to heatstroke.
- Pugs and bulldogs are more likely to die while trapped in a hot car.
- Dogs with heart conditions, as well as overweight or underweight dogs, are also more likely to exhibit symptoms of heatstroke.
Signs of heatstroke in dogs
If your dog is experiencing any of the following symptoms, bring them to a cool area as soon as possible and provide them water:
- Excessive, rapid breathing or panting
- Bright pink gums
- Decreased energy
- Rapid heartbeat
From 1998 to 2018, researchers at No Heat Stroke studied media reports from nearly 800 pediatric vehicular heatstroke deaths. The following is a breakdown of the circumstances that led to the fatalities:
- 54% of the children were forgotten in the car seat by a babysitter.
- 26.3% of the children gained access into the car on their own and got trapped.
- 18.9% of the children were knowingly left in the car by a child care provider at daycare.
- 0.9% of the children were found in the car without anyone knowing how they got there.
The same research from No Heat Stroke ranked states by their respective pediatric vehicular heatstroke deaths per capita. Here are the top ten states from that report:
|State||Deaths Per Capita|
What happens in a hot car?
Once the human body reaches a core temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit, heat stroke may occur, causing toxins to flood the body and leading to cell death. At 106°, the body begins to convulse. Once the body temperature reaches 108°, irreversible brain damage is likely.
The interior of a closed car heats quickly because sunlight heats up elements inside, such as the dash, upholstery, steering wheel, and more, according tonoheatstroke.org— especially if the color of the vehicle is darker. Those elements release their heat into the air (heat rises), increasing the temperature inside the car.
In a time-lapse study conducted in 2002 by the American Academy of Pediatrics, a dark blue mid-sized sedan was used to test the increased temperature inside of the sedan over a one-hour period.
The study established:
- Opening or “cracking” the windows had little effect to cool the interior.
- Two-thirds of the most rapid heating occurred in the first 20 minutes.
- Vehicle interior color was probably the biggest factor in how quickly the interior temperature increased.
- Even when outside temperatures averaged 61° F during the first hour of testing, the inside of a parked car could exceed 105° F.
- All 50 states have laws in place to protect animals from abuse, neglect, and cruelty.
- 26 states have “hot car death prevention”-specific laws.
- 21 states do not have laws that specifically make it illegal to leave a dog (or another animal) unattended in a vehicle.
Good samaritan state laws specific to rescuing people or animals in cars
Emergencies only: how to break a car window
In most states, you are not legally protected to break a window in order to save a child or animal from heatstroke. Before doing anything, take a picture with your cell phone of the victim in the vehicle, as well as a picture of the license plate of the car. Always call the police in the event of finding an animal or human trapped in a hot vehicle.
However, if the victim is not responding, waiting for the police department to break the window might be a risk. In the event of an emergency, here is how to break a car window from the outside:
- Remove the spark plug.
- Break the porcelain casing around it against the ground or a sturdy wall.
- Throw a sharp piece of porcelain at the window.
- Help the trapped victim out of the car. Given them water or a cool, wet towel.
- Wait for the authorities.
In the event your car is damaged by someone trying to rescue a pet or child inside, you have several options with your insurance company. While some are dependent on your pre-existing policy, many claim options come standard with every policy. Here are a few:
- Specific glass coverage is additional coverage you can purchase that includes a lowered deductible (around $100).
- Someone else’s homeowners/renters liability can cover the property damages. But this is state-dependent and certain states might remove this liability coverage.
- Comprehensive coverage is part of a standard policy. The deductibles for this kind of policy can vary.
Over the years, car insurance rates for comprehensive coverage has fluctuated. Below are the most recent rates.
How many babies have died from being left in a car?
Since 1998, there have been 813 deaths caused by pediatric vehicular stroke.
What is the HOT CARS Act?
The HOT CARS Act of 2019 would require cars to have an audible vehicle warning that alerts drivers of someone in the back seat when the engine is turned off. This alert would be similar to a car beeping when headlights are left on after a vehicle is turned off.
How do people die in a hot car?
As the interior of a car heats so does the human body's core temperature of anyone in that car. When a person's core temperature reaches 104º Fahrenheit, heatstroke may occur. Heatstroke causes toxins to flood the body and can lead to cell death. When the body's core temperature reaches 108º F irreversible brain damage is likely to occur.
Can adults die in a hot car?
Yes, adults too can die in hot cars. Anyone is susceptible to heat stroke. The reason there are so many child hot car deaths is due to their inability to get out of the car on their own at young ages.
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This study was conducted for The Zebra using Google Consumer Surveys. The sample consisted of no less than 1,000 completed responses per question. Post-stratification weighting has been applied to ensure an accurate and reliable representation of the total population. This survey was conducted in January 2020.
- National Safety Council
- Figo Pet Insurance LLC
- American Academy of Pediatrics
- No Heat Stroke
- Animal Legal Defense Fund
- American Kennel Club
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