Why Do Parents Continue to Leave Children Alone in Cars on Hot Days?

August 30, 2016

Parenting issues are well-known for their ability to spark debate on both sides. Here’s one issue that’s sure to start a discussion: Leaving a kid alone in the car on a hot day. Most parents know leaving a child in a hot car can be dangerous. Yet, up to 70 percent of parents admit to doing it on occasion, and may grow defensive if their choice gets called out. How dangerous is it to leave your child alone in a hot car, really? Why is it so dangerous, and are there any times when it’s acceptable?

Hot Car Tragedies

First, it’s important to stress this point: Children do die from being left alone in a hot car. Statistics say that in the U.S. ALONE, about 40 children die this way each summer. In these tragedies, the ultimate elements of the story are the same: The car overheats rapidly in the sun due to the greenhouse effect. Left alone with no air conditioner or other relief, the child ends up with heatstroke or hyperthermia, falls unconscious and dies.

The stories of parents who left their children in hot cars are illustrative. For most parents, this was a simple mistake, there was no intent to harm—they forgot to bring a sleeping or quiet child with them. Maybe they thought the heat wasn’t so bad, or that they’d be back sooner than they were.

And the majority of these incidents are accidents. New parents are stricken by a perfect storm of factors – hormonal changes, sleep deprivation, stress, and changes to their everyday routine – anyone of these factors can create forgetfulness. Many parents simply don’t remember that a sleeping or quiet child is in the back seat. It can happen to even the best parents or caregivers.

What Causes Hot Car Tragedies?

Several key factors combine to create tragic deaths in hot cars.

The Temperature

First, there’s the temperature: on a very hot (or very cold) day, your child will suffer. The temperature inside a parked car can be as much as 104 degrees (F) hotter than the outside temperature!!


The length of time your child is left alone also matters because the greenhouse effect causes your car to heat up very quickly. 75% of the noted temperature rise happens within five minutes of closing the door and 90% within as little as 15 minutes.

Age of Children

Young children are 3 - 5 times more sensitive to heat. The younger the child the faster dehydration, heatstroke, and death can occur.

No Supervision

Many of these tragedies also involve leaving a young child completely unmonitored. If you’re waiting in a hot car with your child, you can recognize any signs of distress and take steps to remedy them. But if your child is completely alone, they may not have the perspective to know when they’re suffering, or the skillset to get help. This is one reason why you should never, ever leave a child in a car seat on a hot day: not only are they too young to be left alone, but they’re unable to move or get assistance.


Some parents may choose to take steps to mitigate their child’s suffering, such as cracking a window or leaving a bottle of water or a cell phone with your child. Cracking a window does vent some heat, but on a very hot day, it won’t help. Many children (and even many adults!) don’t recognize the importance of hydrating in hot weather, and even if you leave a cell phone with your child they may not recognize that they’re in an emergency until it’s too late.

Avoiding Tragedy

Some parents choose to let a sleeping child rest in a car, instead of waking them up to unbuckle them and take them inside. After all, waking a sleeping child can cause an outburst, and most new parents welcome some quiet time. But on a particularly hot or cold day, letting your child sleep in a hot car can cause tragedy. An inconvenience or a tantrum is far preferable to the tragedy that could occur.

To avoid forgetting your child on a stressful or busy day, experts recommend

  • Parents leave an important item in the back seat, such as a purse or a bag. That way, you’re sure to remember your child when you retrieve the item.
  • Keep a stuffed animal in the baby seat, whenever the child is in the seat, put the stuffed animal in the front seat a reminder
  • Have your daycare or babysitter call you If your child does not arrive as scheduled
  • Every time you park your car check the back seat to ensure no one has been left behind

Children sometimes enter unlocked hot cars to play or to look for items, and may fall asleep or find themselves unable to escape

  • Always lock your car
  • Keep keys and remotes out of the reach of children
  • Tell your children to never enter a car without an adult present.
  • Teach your child to blow your car’s horn, so they’ll be able to alert you in case they’re trapped or in danger.
  • Show them how to use the emergency release inside the trunk (it glows in the dark in most cars now).

It can take as little as 15 minutes for a child to die inside a hot car.

Completely separate from safety is the issue of legality. Many places in the U.S. have laws about leaving children alone in hot cars, although these vary from place to place. Some areas forbid leaving a child under a certain age in a vehicle, while others say you should leave your child with someone older and more responsible when alone in a vehicle.


Do not leave young children alone in cars

Do Not Leave Children Alone in Cars

It’s a bad idea to leave a child alone in a car, especially on a very hot or cold day. You never know what might happen, and too many children pass away tragically every year from avoidable accidents.

By bringing your child in with you every time, you’ll be able to avoid tragedy. It may be inconvenient, and you may need to use several techniques to make sure you never accidentally forget your child. But these are small steps to take to make sure your family is never afflicted by this tragedy.

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