While the true number of child fatalities due to heatstroke in vehicles is not fully known, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and other safety advocates and academic institutions have recognized the safety threat heatstroke poses for young children left in hot cars. The federal government, automakers, car seat manufacturers, health and safety advocates, consumer groups, and others are working together to tackle this important safety issue.
NHTSA says heatstroke in vehicles is the leading cause of all non-crash-related fatalities involving children 14 and younger, representing 61 percent of total non-crash fatalities in this age group.
- Total number of children that have died from heatstroke since 1998: 893 (as of 8/1/21)
- Number of children who have died from heatstroke in 2021: 10 (as of 8/1/21)
- Number of children who died from heatstroke in 2020: 25
- Number of children who died from heatstroke in 2019: 52
- Number of children who died from heatstroke in 2018: 53
- Number of children who died from heatstroke in 2017: 44
- Average number of child heatstroke fatalities per year since 1998: 39
Never leave an infant or child unattended in a vehicle, even if the windows are partly open, or the engine is running and the air conditioning is on. Don’t let children play in an unattended vehicle. Teach them a vehicle is not a play area. Make a habit of looking in the vehicle, front and back, before locking the door and walking away. Take steps to remember not to leave a child in a vehicle: Write yourself a note and place it where you’ll see it when you leave the vehicle; place your purse, briefcase, or something else you’re sure to need in the back seat so you’ll be sure to see a child left in the vehicle; keep an object in the car seat, such as a stuffed toy. Once the child is buckled in, place the object where the driver will notice it when he or she leaves the vehicle. Always lock vehicle doors and trunks and keep keys out of children’s reach. If a child is missing, check the vehicle first, including the trunk. Ask your childcare center to call you if your child doesn’t arrive on time for childcare. If you see a child alone in a hot vehicle, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. If they are in distress due to heat, get them out as quickly as possible. Cool the child rapidly (not an ice bath but by spraying them with cool water or with a garden hose).
Children’s bodies overheat easily, and infants and children under 3 years old are at greatest risk for heat-related illness. A child’s body absorbs more heat on a hot day than an adult’s does. High body temperatures can cause permanent injury or even death. Heatstroke begins when the core body temperature reaches about 104 degrees and the thermoregulatory system is overwhelmed. A core temperature of about 107 degrees is lethal. Symptoms of heatstroke vary but may include:
- Red, hot and moist or dry skin
- No sweating
- A strong, rapid pulse or a slow, weak pulse
- A throbbing headache
- Being grouchy or acting strangely
A vehicle heats up quickly, even with a window rolled down. A review of child heatstroke cases showed that heatstroke fatalities have occurred even in vehicles parked in shaded areas and when the air temperatures were 80 degrees or less. Heatstroke can occur in temperatures as low as 57 degrees and on an 80 degree day, temperatures inside a vehicle can reach deadly levels in just 10 minutes.
Pediatric heatstroke can happen to any family. In 52 percent of vehicular heatstroke cases the child was “forgotten” by the caregiver. In more than 29 percent of cases, a child got into the vehicle on their own.