In-Car Heatstroke Kills Kids Year-Round

CARS.COM — In-car heatstroke doesn't just kill kids in the summer. It's only early April and two children have already died of it, said Jan Null, a scientist from San Jose State University's Department of Meteorology & Climate Science. Infants in Texas and Georgia died when they were left in hot cars, and in one case, the outside temperature was only 52 degrees. In fact, Null told Cars.com that a heatstroke death has occurred in every month of the year since he began tracking the deaths in 1998.

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In January, a 13-month-old Georgia boy died after being left in a car for more than five hours. According to police reports, the car was in direct sunlight, and while the outside temperature was 52 degrees, the car's interior quickly heated up. Last month in Texas, a 7-month-old girl died after being left unattended in a car for several hours on an 84-degree day.

Null said the sun is a big factor in heatstroke deaths, regardless of the season. As the sun strikes objects in the car, he explained, they give off radiant heat that raises the temperature of the air inside the cabin. After an hour in the sun, the air temp in a car can become around 43 degrees hotter than outside temps, depending on factors like the color of a car's interior. 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, heatstroke occurs when the body's temperature exceeds 104 degrees; a body's organs begin to shut down at 107 degrees. NHTSA's data shows that vehicles heat up quickly, even with a window rolled down 2 inches. For example, if the outside temperature is in the low 80s, the temperature inside a vehicle can reach deadly levels in only 10 minutes.

Children's thermoregulatory systems are not as efficient as that of an adult; they are at a greater risk for heatstroke because their body temperatures rise 3 to 5 times faster. Null reported that in-car heatstroke has claimed the lives of 663 children since 1998, and the majority of those killed are the most vulnerable age, like the two most recent victims: 32 percent were younger than a year old and 22 percent were a year old.

Null examined media reports about heatstroke deaths from 1998-2015 and found that:

  • 54 percent of the children were forgotten by their caregiver
  • 29 percent were playing in unattended vehicle
  • 17 percent were intentionally left in the vehicle by an adult
  • 1 percent of deaths were caused by unknown circumstances

Heatstroke symptoms include dizziness, disorientation, agitation, confusion, sluggishness, seizure, hot dry skin that is flushed but not sweaty, loss of consciousness, rapid heartbeat and hallucinations. NHTSA reminds parents to look before they lock the car, but what about bystanders who happen to notice a child left behind in a parked car?

If you see something, act. Call 911 immediately and get involved. Many states have Good Samaritan laws that protect citizens acting in good faith to help someone in trouble. Click here for a state-by-state list from Safe Kids.

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