How long does it take for a car's interior temperature to soar to triple digits — hot enough to quickly lead to heatstroke, and even death, if a child has been left behind in a vehicle? On a sunny, 78-degree spring day in Miami, it took just 40 minutes, with the interior temp reaching 109 degrees. I know because I sat inside the car with sweat rolling off me to experience just how quickly the vehicle's interior went from uncomfortable to unbearable — and ultimately deadly for a young child.
It may seem foolish to purposely sit in a hot car and watch the interior temperature rise — and it was, though my parents will tell you I spent a good chunk of my high school and college years excelling at poor choices — but it was worth it if for no other reason than it got your attention. And that might help you keep an eye out for kids who were left behind in a hot car, or prevent you from making that mistake with your own children.
On average, 37 children die each year due to in-car heatstroke, according to NoHeatstroke.org. In 2017, 42 children died because they were left behind in a hot car. All of these deaths were preventable, and the majority of these deaths were tragic accidents.
Heatstroke is caused by prolonged exposure to high temps and occurs when a person's body temperature rises to 104 degrees or higher, according to the Mayo Clinic. Signs of heatstroke include nausea or vomiting, flushed (red) skin, racing heart rate and skin that's hot but dry to the touch. Someone with symptoms of heatstroke requires emergency medical attention. In my test, I experienced some signs of heat exhaustion, which happens before heatstroke. I was sweating profusely and experiencing fatigue. Fortunately, I ended the test before my symptoms worsened.
As I sat in that hot car, I was reminded that adults are better able to regulate their body temperature than kids whose bodies warm 3 to 5 times faster. When I first got into the enclosed car, the interior temperature was at 71 degrees, which was perfectly comfortable. But with the sun blazing over the hot parking lot, the car's interior temperature started to climb by roughly 1 degree each minute. Within 15 minutes, the car's interior was around 86 degrees and I was sweating as my body tried to cool down. Children's internal temperatures can reach 106 degrees in just 15 minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If you're wondering how someone could forget their child in the backseat, it's as simple as a change in routine: Mom dropping off the baby at daycare instead of Dad, or a sleep-deprived parent who forgets their sleeping toddler is strapped into the rear-facing car seat and heads into the office without first stopping at the babysitter's house. The majority of in-car heatstroke deaths are tragic accidents, making it all the more important that everyone keep an eye out for an unattended child.
When you're in a parking lot, keep your eye out for children alone in a parked car. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, here's what bystanders should do if they see a child left behind in a parked car.
- First, check to see if the child in the car is responsive. Do they react when you approach the vehicle?
- If the child doesn't respond to you, call 911 and then try to get into the car. Check all the doors in case one is unlocked. If you're unable to open a door, you may need to break a window. To do this, choose a side window that's farthest from the child and use something to break that window in one of its lower corners. While you're doing this, ask someone to try to find the parents and alert store security.
- If the child responds to you when you approach the vehicle, try to find the child's parents. Stay with the child, and call the store's security and alert them to the situation. If the child is in distress, consider calling 911 and getting the child out of the car.
When I finally emerged from that hot car with a cabin temperature well into the triple digits, I was dripping with sweat and drained from the heat. I looked — and likely smelled — horrible. But if it prevents one child from being inadvertently left behind, it was worth it.
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