Dangers of leaving children in cars

It’s never okay to put our own convenience above the safety of children we’re responsible for. That’s why parents and caregivers should never leave a child behind in their vehicle. Children left alone in cars are at risk for hypothermia and hyperthermia.

Understanding hypothermia versus hyperthermia

Hyperthermia, or overheating of the body, is a serious risk in warm temperatures. Temperatures rise quickly in a stopped car, and leaving a window cracked makes little difference. The temperature in an enclosed car can rise about 19ºF in a matter of minutes, 34ºF in half an hour, and 43ºF in 1 hour. Image it's 80ºF outside, within minutes of parking, your car's internal temperature could rise to 99ºF. A child’s body overheats three to five times more quickly than an adult’s, meaning babies and children are at much higher risk for hyperthermia and heatstroke than adults.

The danger of hypothermia—the body losing heat faster than it can be produced—is also a serious risk. Children’s smaller body size and subsequent inability to make enough body heat through shivering put them at higher risk for hypothermia and frostbite, which can happen all too quickly in cold conditions. Signs of hypothermia include shivering, confusion, memory loss, drowsiness, exhaustion, poor coordination, slurred speech, and numbness. Children may have trouble communicating these symptoms. 

But in cold temperatures, leaving your child in a car with the motor running and the heater on can be equally dangerous. While it may reduce the child’s risk of hypothermia, it increases the risk of hyperthermia. One expert notes that many cars don’t have a built-in temperature-control system, and young children, particularly those strapped into car seats, can’t adjust the temperature.

Keeping your passengers safe

Here are guidelines when driving with children aboard:

  • Never leave infants or children alone in a parked car—not even for 1 minute. Nothing—not cracking the windows nor running the air conditioner or heater—can ensure the car remains at a temperature that is safe for your child. It may be a hassle to take your child along on every “be right back” errand—but it can save their life.
  • Always check the car to make sure everyone is out when you leave it. You might feel a little silly looking in the back seat when you’re by yourself, but getting in this habit helps protect your child on days you must divert from your usual routine.
  • Use a memory aid to ensure you don’t forget your child is along for the ride. When you get in the car, put your purse, briefcase, or bag in the back with your child. That way, when you reach your destination and get your accessory from the back seat, you’ll be sure to see her. Alternatively, use a stuffed animal as a visual cue. (Put the stuffed animal in the car seat when the child isn’t there; move it to the front seat when the child is there.)
  • If you see a child left unattended in a car, dial 911 immediately.
  • Lock your car when you leave it. Some heat-related incidents happen because children get into unattended cars while playing and can’t get out.
  • Know the signs of heat-related illness and cold-related illness.

Leaving your child in the car increases the impact of your becoming distracted or being delayed by circumstances you didn’t anticipate—long lines, interruptions, and so forth— that may cause you to leave him in the vehicle for much longer than you intended. Essentially, out of sight, out of mind. While taking your child out of the car may add a few minutes to your "quick" errand, it will help protect them from injury and may even save their life.

For more car safety tips (including risks of power windows and rollovers), read this and visit the Kids and Cars website

Heat-Related Illnesses graphic courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ©2017

Last updated August 12, 2019

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