Heatstroke Deaths of Children in Vehicles

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How did a meteorologist get involved in studying and tracking heatstroke deaths of children?

2. How are the statistics gathered? How accurate are they?

3. Why does another organization have a different numbers of deaths than on this site?"

4. Isn’t there technology that will warn us if a child is left in a vehicle? [Updated July 2022]

5. How are temperatures properly measured inside a vehicle?

6. How hot do objects that are inside a car and in direct sunlight get?

7. How much hotter does it get inside a trunk that inside the passenger compartment?

8. How can I use your statistics on my own website?

9. Do children also die from being left in cold cars in winter?


1. How did a meteorologist get involved in studying and tracking hyperthermia deaths of children?

On July 24, 2001 a young father in San Jose, CA left his 5-month old son in the car on an 86 degree day while he visited friends. Two hours later he came out and Kyle Patrick Gilbert was dead. At that time I was asked by a local reporter "how hot could it have gotten in that car?”. The only study I could find was from 1993 in Louisiana and only looked at a single 93 degree day. Out of scientific curiosity I started tracking temperatures in my own vehicles and was startled at not only how hot the readings were but also how rapidly they rose. The following summer I a more controlled study and the project grew from there. I began working with some of the child car safety groups to share my data and also link it to their case data. About the same time I started working with two Stanford University Hospital Emergency Medicine doctors who became my co-authors for an article in the Pediatrics. Once it was published it became the “go to” article on the topic and is used worldwide. My hopes are that this research will raise the level of interest and awareness about this sad topic and ultimately to save some innocent lives.

2. How are you statistics gathered? How accurate are they?

Our statistics are primarily gathered with customized online news searches of electronic media using tools such as Google News and Lexis-Nexus. Rarely, we become aware of a fatality that somehow never caught the attention of local media, happened in a locale without electronic media or occasionally ones that were suppressed by the families or local authorities.

We found that using electronic news sources yield nearly twice as many reported heatstroke deaths of children in vehicles as did official sources. For example, the latest (March 2015) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Not-in-Traffic Surveillance (NiTS): Non-Crash Fatalities and Injuries report, based on death certificates from the special mortality files of the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS), estimated an annual average of only 19 fatalies of children (i.e., <14 years) due to hyperthermia in vehicles. From tracking of media reports there were 112 deaths documented in that same 3-year period; an average of 37 per year.

3. Why does another organization have a slightly different number of deaths than on this site?

All of the data on this site, NoHeatstroke.org, has been vetted and is publicly available on the site and from either media or other public reports. However, another organization occasionally will receive a report in "confidence" and does not share the details, but does include them as part of their public totals. Because such cases cannot be publicly verified, best scientific practices preclude including anecdotal data. Unfortunately, this means that the user community is left with two different numbers, which not only causes confusion but it also hurts the veracity of what we are trying to achieve.

4. Aren't there technological or other products that will remind or warn us if a child is left in a vehicle? [UPDATED JULY 2022]

Yes, and technology will certainly help to save lives lost to Pediatric Vehicular Heatstroke (PVH), but it is only a partial soultion. Even after 20 years of the implementation of the most sophisticated detection technology in new cars, only about 30% of the potential deaths will be saved.  See https://www.noheatstroke.org/tech.pdf, a detailed breakdown of the potential number of lives saved by both "reminder" and "detection" systems, with the biggest takeaway being that technology is not a panacea to the problem. Efforts to curb the PVH deaths need to be multi-layered and need to include continued education and awareness as well as the deployment of effective technologies; both in new vehicles and also via aftermarket solutions.

Technological answers range from simple visual reminders to extremely complex technologies. I get dozens of inquiries every year from potential inventors/developers who have a "solution", most of them quite brilliant. But to date there are very few "devices" on the market and their market share and impact appears to be minimal. Important Note: I do not to endorse or link to any products as I have no way to properly evaluate or vet them, and to do so would take an inordinate amount of my very limited time and resources.

In he recently passed “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’’ (H.R. 3684, https://www.congress.gov/117/bills/hr3684/BILLS-117hr3684enr.pdf, Sec. 24222) there is a requirement that “all new passenger motor vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight to be equipped with a system to alert the operator to check rear-designated seating positions after the vehicle engine or motor is deactivated by the operator.” Previously, The Alliance for Automobile Innovation (AAI), formerly the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers, published a 2019 statement calling for the voluntary installation of child reminders in all new vehicles by their member companies by 2025. (https://www.autosinnovate.org/safety/heatstroke/Automakers%20Commit%20to%20Helping%20Combat%20Child%20Heatstroke.pdf)

There are also a number of after-market technological solutions, but they have failed to get significant market share, likely because many parents say something to the effect of "I don't need one of those; I would never forget MY child!"

Resources:
"Guide to Rear Occupant Alert Systems" (May 2022) from Consumers Union is a comprehensive listing of vehicles that have reminder or detection systems.
"Testing of Unattended Child Reminder Systems" (April 2022) from NHTSA.
"Pediatric Vehicular Heatstroke: Evaluation of Preventative Technologies" from Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

 5. How are temperatures properly measured inside a vehicle?

The temperature inside a vehicle should be taken the same way as it is outdoors; and that means NOT in direct sunlight. When a thermometer is exposed to the sun you are then measuring the energy of the sun and not the temperature of the air. In the research associated with this study, the temperature readings were taken with a thermometer suspended in free air (i.e., not directly in contact with objects in the vehicle), at approximately the same level as a car seat and out of direct sunlight. Readings should also be taken with either a remote thermometer or one that can be read without opening the vehicles doors.

6. How hot do objects that are inside a car and in direct sunlight get?

While taking air temperature measurements I also regularly used an infrared thermometer to measure the surface temperatures of objects inside and around the vehicle. On days when the ambient outside air temperature was in the 80’s it's common to see the temperature of a dark dashboard or steering wheel to be in the 180 to 200 degree range. Even outside, the temperature of a black asphalt parking lot surface will exceed 160 degrees.

7. How much hotter does it get inside a trunk that inside the passenger compartment?

Surprisingly the inside of a trunk is cooler than the inside of the car itself. This is because most the heating occurs from objects being heated by sunlight and those in turn heating the air. Since no sunlight gets into the trunk the temperatures are cooler. During my research I have anecdotally taken some temperature reading inside the trunks of  vehicles and they were about 5-10 degrees cooler than the air in the passenger compartment after an hour.  I hypothesize that for extended periods (i.e., greater than two or three hours) that the trunk tempatures would rise to similar readings as those in the passenger area.


8. Can I use your statistics from your website?

Yes, the information and statistics from this website ( http://noheatstroke.org ) may be used if full attribtution is given to the source. Please cite in the short form a hyperlink to the website NoHeatstroke.org (http://noheatstroke.org), or more fully: "Source: Jan Null, CCM, Department of Meteorology and Climate Science, San Jose State University, http://noheatstroke.org". A live link back to http://noheatstroke.org is preferred as data on the site changes frequently and this ensures that users can gain access to the most accurate and up-to-date information.


9.   Do children also die from being left in cold cars in winter?

Very occasionally there will be a hypothermia (i.e., exposure to cold temperatures) death of a child in a vehicle. But from the tracking that is done they are rare; probably on the order of one fatality ever couple of years nationwide.  The same dynamics which heat up cars, also help keep them from cooling rapidly. Also, most children have enough clothing that they retain some body heat to survive for significantly longer than a child in a hot car. But the bottom line remains that children should not be left unattended in vehicles at any temperatue or for any amount of time.