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Hot so fast: Leaving kids in cars can be deadly in summer temps

child in a car seat
Photo: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

San Diego — Parents and caregivers need to “look before you lock” a parked vehicle, as temperatures on sunny summer days can climb well above 100° F in one hour – about the time it can take for a child to suffer heat-related injuries or death, according to the results of a recent study.

Researchers at Arizona State University and the University of California, San Diego observed the interior temperatures of six vehicles – two each of identical light-colored economy cars, minivans and mid-size sedans – for three days during which the temperature reached 100° F. Simulating a shopping trip, the group parked the cars in the sun or shade for about 60 minutes before moving each vehicle into the sun and using the air conditioner to regulate temperature. Researchers repeated the cycle three to five times daily.

Findings showed that cabin temperature for vehicles parked in the sun for an hour averaged 116° F, and temperatures were even warmer on the seats (123° F), steering wheel (127° F) and dashboard (157° F). For vehicles parked in shade, temperatures averaged about 100° F in the cabin, 105° F on the seats, 107° F on the steering wheel and 118° F on the dashboard.

“We’ve all gone back to our cars on hot days and have been barely able to touch the steering wheel,” Nancy Selover, study co-author and ASU climatologist, said in a May 24 press release. “But, imagine what that would be like to a child trapped in a car seat. And once you introduce a person into these hot cars, they are exhaling humidity into the air. When there is more humidity in the air, a person can’t cool down by sweating because sweat won’t evaporate as quickly.”

According to noheatstroke.org, pediatric vehicular heatstroke claimed the lives of 751 children since 1998, including 42 in 2017.

In related news, a recent analysis from the National Safety Council found that only 21 states and Guam have enacted laws making it illegal to leave children unattended in vehicles. Nine laws lack protections for people who attempt to save an unattended child, and only eight consider felony charges for offenders.

Olathe, KS-based nonprofit organization Kids and Cars offers guidance to help parents and guardians avoid unintentionally locking children in cars in its Look Before You Lock campaign. Tips include:

  • Open the back door of your vehicle each time you park to ensure no one is left behind.
  • Place items such as cellphones, employee badges or handbags in the backseat as a reminder.
  • Keep keys and remote openers out of reach to ensure a child cannot enter an unattended vehicle.
  • Keep vehicles locked at all times once all members of your party are gathered.

The study was published online May 23 in the journal Temperature.

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