Hot car deaths: Even in shade, children can die quickly when left inside vehicle

SAN DIEGO — Every summer, stories crop up about children or animals left to bake inside hot cars by the adults caring for them. For some, it’s the tragic result of an unimaginable accident; but for others, it’s the negligent mindset that parking in the shade or cracking a window will make everything safe. Now a new study shows it doesn’t take very long for a vehicle to reach life-threatening temperatures inside, even when drivers think they’re taking measures to keep the occupants cool.

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On average, 37 American children die in hot cars every year. In 2017, 43 children died from hyperthermia in cars, according to, a website supported by the National Safety Council. July and August are typically the two most dangerous months when it comes to these tragic incidents.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego and Arizona State University calculated that a car can turn into a virtual oven if left in the sun for about one hour, or in the shade for just under two hours. They found that a parked car sitting in the sun on an average summer day can reach an interior temperatures of 116 degrees Fahrenheit, with dashboard temperatures reaching as high as 165 degrees in an hour — enough time for a child to suffer fatal heat-related injuries.

To reach their results, the research team tested two identical silver mid-size sedans, two identical silver economy cars, and two identical silver minivans on three summer days in Tempe, Arizona when temperatures topped 100 degrees. They tested the cars in various degrees of sunlight and shade, then tried to predict what these hot car conditions would do to an average two-year-old in the vehicles.

“We found that a child trapped in a car under the study’s conditions could reach a body temperature of 104 degrees F. in about an hour if a car is parked in the sun, and just under two hours if the car is parked in the shade,” says the study’s first author Jennifer Vanos, PhD, in a statement. “This body temperature could be fatal to infants and children — and those who survive may sustain permanent neurological damage.”

Over half of child deaths in hot cars occur because their parent or guardian forgot them in the car.

“Children and infants are unable to control the environment, communicate well and often fall asleep during car rides,” says Vanos. “Even in our technologically advanced world, human error results in children dying every year in the U.S. from being left in hot vehicles. All of which are 100 percent preventable.”

The researchers hope their findings not only lead to greater awareness for parents, but they also would like to see more attention given to technology that can help prevent these deaths all together.

The full study was published May 23, 2018 in the journal Temperature.

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