By Samantha Bloch
Between 1998 and 2019 an average of 39 children died each year of vehicular heatstroke in the U.S., a total of 854 preventable premature deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) notes, heatstroke is one of the leading causes of vehicular non-crash-related deaths among children.
Heatstroke occurs when a person’s core body temperature reaches 104 degrees or higher and requires immediate medical attention to prevent permanent brain and/or organ damage. Vehicular heatstroke can occur when a child is left, or gains access to, and gets trapped in a vehicle.
In 2020, at least 10 children have died from heatstroke in the U.S. The risk for heatstroke is possible regardless of the weather conditions, time of the year and geographic location. While the states with the highest rates of child vehicular heatstroke fatalities are in the southern half of the country, all communities can be affected by this deadly issue.
Over half of heatstroke deaths happen because parents or caregivers forget children in a car. Scientists have found that most unintentional hot-car deaths involve changes in routine that cause a memory lapse when the brain’s memory systems start to compete against each other. The second leading cause of heatstroke deaths—over 25% of cases—is children gaining access to unattended cars on their own and getting trapped.
Roughly a fifth of all heatstroke deaths occur when caregivers knowingly leave a child in a car. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), simply leaving a window open does not suffice, as “temperatures inside the car can rise almost 20 degrees Fahrenheit within the first 10 minutes, even with a window cracked open.” According to NHTSA, temperatures inside vehicles “can reach 110 degrees, even when the outside temperature is as low as 57 degrees.”
At least 21 states have laws with specific language addressing children left in unattended cars. Fifteen of the 21 states with specific laws generally prohibit anyone from leaving a child unattended in a vehicle, with some laws allowing for a short period of time—between five and 15 minutes—before it becomes a crime.
Laws in the remaining six states have some exceptions. Alabama’s and Wisconsin’s laws apply specifically to paid childcare providers. Washington’s law applies to a running vehicle or a vehicle parked outside an establishment that sells alcohol for consumption on the premises. Rhode Island’s law allows for a verbal warning (versus fines or prison), and laws in two other states—Kentucky and Missouri—impose sanctions only if a child is injured or dies.
The remaining states’ statutes do not expressly address this issue, but injuries or deaths that are caused because a child was left unattended in a vehicle can be prosecuted under general child endangerment, manslaughter or homicide statutes.
Since 2018, no new laws have been enacted. However, bills are pending in New Jersey and New York requiring penalties for leaving children unattended in cars. New Jersey’s legislation (AB 3751), for example, would impose criminal penalties for leaving a child younger than 6 unattended in a car, including imprisonment of up to 30 days, a fine of no less than $500 or both. Penalties increase substantially if the child suffers any injuries.
States have also enacted Good Samaritan Laws that protect individuals from criminal or civil liability if they chose to render assistance when they see an unattended child in a car. Currently, 21 states have such laws that specifically relate to unattended children in vehicles—most states have general laws related to assisting a person who is injured or in danger.
Many of these laws impose requirements before an individual can take action to access a vehicle with an unattended child, such as calling 911 first. New York is considering a proposal (NY S 1289/ NY A 3891) that would grant immunity from civil liability to any person that acts in good faith to remove an unattended child from a vehicle.
Pending state and federal legislation laws would direct vehicle manufacturers or car seat manufacturers to install technology that will alert caregivers, so they don’t unintentionally forget a child in a car. New York (AB 8582) would require sellers of new motor vehicle child restraint systems to also sell warning devices for those restraint systems that alert caregivers when a child remains harnessed after the driver turns off the motor.
While these policies can contribute to fighting hot car deaths, awareness and education are essential. To prevent heatstroke deaths, caregivers should be aware of the risks. This is especially true this year with the COVID-19 public health emergency upending daily routines.
Credit: National Safety Council
July is National Heatstroke Prevention Month, and NHTSA has compiled life-saving tips and resources to share with friends, neighbors, colleagues and constituencies.
Samantha Bloch is a policy associate in NCSL’s Transportation Program.