A scientist discovers the hot-car danger even careful parents miss. It’s heartbreaking—and easily avoidable.

 In Baby, Grade-schooler, Preschooler, Toddler

Bella and Zoey Lindstrom played in their yard, ate lunch, and curled up in their blankets to nap. But then, unseen by anyone, the sisters made their way into their father’s unlocked truck, parked in front of their home in Flint, Texas. That’s where Russel Lindstrom found the girls less than an hour later: lying in the backseat, unresponsive.

Zoey, 3, was hospitalized with heatstroke but recovered. Four-year-old Bella died.

Hot weather + parked car + kids under 5 (sometimes older) = potential tragedy.

unlocked car

You’ve heard about the cases that often make headlines, where a parent or caregiver forgets to drop off a child at day care before going to work. That accounts for about half of children who die of heatstroke in cars—an average of nearly 40 a year in the U.S. alone, according to Jan Null, a meteorologist at San Jose State University who runs the site noheatstroke.org, which tracks these incidents and is partially funded by the National Safety Council.

In another 17 percent of cases, a parent intentionally leaves a child in the car—while dashing into a store, say, or to get something from the house and then is distracted or delayed.

But look what’s happening in almost one-third of these heatstroke deaths: Kids gain access to the vehicle on their own.

“It’s the one category that’s forgotten about,” Null told me. “The child wanders away and gets in the vehicle or goes there to play.”

A month after Bella Lindstrom died in 2014, 3-year-old Logan Cox of South Carolina crawled into his car with his dog and died. So did another 3-year-old, in Los Angeles.

Mobile and curious, all of these children were at the prime age for this particular tragedy: 2 to 4. But older kids can get trapped too. In 2005, three boys ages 5, 6, and 11 seemed to have vanished from their yard in Camden, New Jersey, after one of their mothers went inside for a few minutes to check on dinner. A massive search ensued. Two days later, someone thought to check the trunk of a car parked right outside.

Already in 2016, four children in the U.S. have died when they were forgotten in cars—two in April alone.

And because of the ways deaths are reported, Null believes the actual number of cases—whether from being forgotten, being left intentionally and then forgotten, or getting into a car unnoticed—is higher than reported stats show.

Then there’s the number of near-misses, he adds, where a child becomes overheated but recovers. “Astronomical.”

One big reason: Cars get hotter faster than you might expect.

elapsed tie

May through September is the peak danger season, Null’s data show. “In those 150 days, there’s a death every 4.4 days,” he told me.

But deaths have happened in every month of the year and in all but four states (Alaska, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wyoming), he adds.

It doesn’t take a blazing scorcher to kill a child. Temperatures inside a car can rise by as much as 43 degrees within an hour, a study in the journal Pediatrics showed.

And two-thirds of the temperature rise happens within 20 minutes of the door closing. “I was blown away by how hot it gets, and how fast,” says Null, who co-authored the study.

Here’s the kicker: A kid’s body temperature rises three to five times faster than an adult’s. (Their thermoregulatory systems are less efficient.) So not unlike the dogs left in cars that we’ve all been programmed to worry about for years, they’re affected faster than we are.

Short of fatal heatstroke, being left too long in a hot vehicle can lead to its starter symptoms: dizziness, agitation, confusion, sluggishness, hot dry skin (flushed but not sweaty). A child can become too lethargic to get out. When core body temperature hits 107, organs begin to rapidly shut down.

heat map

Please don’t think, “That won’t happen to me.” 

Look at these faces.

From these tragedies, Null and other safety experts have picked up some brilliant lessons:

Keep your car locked when you’re not using it. Every time. Even in your driveway or garage.

Store keys and remote openers where kids can’t get to them. While children under age 5 are most affected, even older kids and preteens have been killed.

Teach your child not to play in the car—ever. More than that, don’t allow a child to go into the car—even, say, to fetch a lost blankie or toy—without you. It’s too easy to get distracted, experts warn.

girl driver

Make sure everyone’s out before you lock up. Get in the habit of checking the back, especially if you have more than one child or are ferrying friends or cousins. Don’t assume they’ll all exit.

If your child goes missing, do this immediately: First check a nearby pool or pond, then check all nearby vehicles. Look in neighbors’ cars and trucks too, including the trunk. “The pool is where they could die fastest, then inside a car, and then inside a trunk, where it’s slightly cooler,” Null told me. “If they’re hiding in an attic or crawl space, they’re less likely to die.”

Set up a late/absent confirmation system with your childcare provider. Ask your childcare provider to call you if your child doesn’t arrive on time.

Ray Ray’s Pledge is a campaign to end forgotten daycare drop-offs that was started by parents who lost a daughter this way.

Start a memory system. Always put your purse (or wallet, backpack, briefcase, or—for a double safety benefit—phone) in the backseat, next to your child’s car seat, so you won’t leave the car without looking there. The safety group Kidsandcars.org suggests keeping a large stuffed animal in the seat when it’s empty, and moving the toy to the front while you’re driving your child.

Both parents should do it. Teach grandparents, babysitters, and anyone else who drives your child around to do the same thing.

Need an extra motivator? Experts point out that if you’ve ever left something—anything—in the car, you’re capable of forgetting a child.

Position the car seat in the middle of the back seat. Yeah, it’s a little bit harder to reach but easier to see from the driver’s seat. Ironically, heatstroke from being forgotten in the back of a car was almost unheard of before car seat placement moved to the back in the 1990s in order to avoid front-seat airbags.

Don’t ever leave your child unattended in a car. Safety experts recommend paying for gas with a credit card so you don’t have to run inside to pay. Ditto drive-through banks and dry cleaners. (Null told me he’s surprised how many accounts of carjacking he comes across in his research too—and often the thief has no idea there’s a kid in the backseat.)

Slow down. Easy to say, hard to do, right? But stress, lack of sleep, rushing around, and distraction are among the factors experts say cause parents to forget kids in car seats. Know that you’re entering a danger zone when there’s some kind of change in the routine: Dad does daycare drop-off instead of mom, construction forces you to park in a different-from-usual spot, or you bring a baby on errands when you normally use a sitter.

Awareness is everything

Null told me that every week he gets a call about a device that promises to end the problem of kids killed by vehicular heatstroke. He’s not buying it. A 2012 study by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration found none of the reminder products on the market to be reliable.

“Even if there were a supermagical device on the market that worked 100 percent of the time and was adopted by every car,” he told me, “ it would be great but not a panacea.”

It wouldn’t help the half of all deaths caused when a child gets into a vehicle to play or is intentionally left in the car and then forgotten.

“That’s why it’s all about awareness,” Null says.

One bright note: 2015 saw the lowest number of car heatstroke deaths since 1998 (24, down from 31 in 2014 and 44 in 2013). Null thinks that two things might be boosting awareness: high-profile cases like Justin Harris (the dad who left his 22-month-old in a car and is on trial for murder, a case turned into a TV special by CNN’s Nancy Grace), and its snowballing effect as people have begun intervening when they see children left alone in cars.

If anything makes any of us think twice about kids and cars, it’s a good thing.

—Content chief Paula Spencer Scott is a mom of 4 and step-mom of 2—and the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about parenting, health, and eldercare, including Bright From the Start; The Happiest Toddler on the Block; Like Mother, Like Daughter; and Surviving Alzheimer’s.

Images from top: Brian Ashe/Flickr, noheatstrok.org (2), Benny Mazur/Flickr

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