“Never Leave Your Kids in the Car for a Minute” — But Kids Who Died Were There 4.6 HOURS

As a country, we have been warned to never let a child wait in the car, as if merely waiting briefly in a parked car leads to death.

Fortunately, a 2010 study published in Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology looked at the actual circumstances surrounding the deaths of kids in non-moving cars. (Recall that the most dangerous place for a child in America is a MOVING car. In 2007, 36 children died of heatstroke in cars, while 905 died in crashes. Maybe we should criminalize driving?)

So here’s the stat that we should remember:  

From 1999 to 2007, 231 MVRCHF [Motor vehicle-related child hyperthermia fatalities] were identified. Children were left unattended in >80 percent of cases, 25 percent of victims were playing at the time of death, and 60 percent were male. On average, the core body temperature was 107.2 degrees F after being left inside the vehicle for an average of 4.6 hours.

Note: 4. 6 HOURS is not how long it takes a mom to get a rotisserie chicken, or run into the gas station, or even the 15 minutes it can take to break into an accidentally locked car. This week brought the story of a Kenosha, WI, mom arrested for letting her kids wait in the car for 9 minutes. The oldest kid was 7 — old enough to open a door if it gets too hot.

Can we please remember the 4.6 hour stat, rather than screaming at (or arresting, or jailing, or electronically monitoring) any parent who makes her decisions based on reality, not hysteria, and allows her kid to wait in the car for a short time in non-lethal circumstances?

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Because so many dangers await the child left alone for 61 seconds.

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41 Responses to “Never Leave Your Kids in the Car for a Minute” — But Kids Who Died Were There 4.6 HOURS

  1. Vicki June 23, 2017 at 10:58 am #

    I’m sure if you told the people who are against leaving a child in the car for “even one minute” would balk if you suggested that they shouldn’t ever drive a child anywhere, as the most dangerous place for a child to be is in a moving car (an inconvenient truth). So, according to this line of reasoning, leaving the child for a couple of minutes is extremely dangerous but it’s okay to drive them all over the place – it’s pure hypocrisy!

  2. James Pollock June 23, 2017 at 11:13 am #

    Of course, hyperthermia is only one of the ways kids can die unattended in a car, there are others.

  3. Anna June 23, 2017 at 11:29 am #

    That poor WI mom. She left windows open, was gone very briefly, and didn’t break any WI laws anyway (assuming your laws page is up-to-date).
    It would be nice if this site could add a section for legal help in various states; some parents really don’t have the money to hire a good lawyer and very well might not have been charged in the first place if they’d been in a different economic bracket. Given the area of town for the car-door-blown-shut incident, I’m guessing the mom was poor and black and with this WI story, the last name and the suspended charge make me think that if she’d been white with no prior police contact, they’d have ignored the whole thing. I’m also guessing that since her previous charge was suspended, it was as flimsy as this one.

  4. Donna June 23, 2017 at 12:12 pm #

    “I’m also guessing that since her previous charge was suspended, it was as flimsy as this one.”

    According to the article Lenore linked, the previous charge – also for child abuse – is still pending. She was on bond for that charge when this incident occurred. Since she was also charged for “bail jumping” when arrested this last time, it appears that she also failed to appear for a court date on that previous charge. I do agree, however, that this situation may not have lead to arrest if she had not already been on bond for felony child abuse.

  5. Suze June 23, 2017 at 12:15 pm #

    My neighbour with two young girls leaves them in their car seats all the time. She’ll come home from being out and about and they’ll both be sleeping. She opens the van door as wide as it goes and comes in and out of the house; usually puttering around in her front garden (right beside the van with sleeping kids) No one makes a big deal out of it. They’re sleeping so just leave them. She’s around, she knows they’re in there and she’s watching. Twenty some odd years ago I did the same thing myself with my son. So now, this has become an arrestable offence. Sad.

  6. Sochii June 23, 2017 at 12:16 pm #

    Glad I live in a town where I can leave my kids in the car to pay for gas without being arrested. But for how long, who knows.

  7. MomOf8 June 23, 2017 at 12:22 pm #

    “25 percent of victims were playing at the time of death”

    I don’t understand. They were playing while they died? Someone was watching them play and die while they were locked in a car?

  8. Donna June 23, 2017 at 12:44 pm #

    “I don’t understand. They were playing while they died? Someone was watching them play and die while they were locked in a car?”

    No, they were playing when they got accidentally locked in the car. Meaning that a parent didn’t leave them in the car. The children were playing, got into the car without anyone knowing they were there, couldn’t get themselves out and died.

  9. Mark Roulo June 23, 2017 at 12:45 pm #

    “On average, the core body temperature was 107.2 degrees F after being left inside the vehicle for an average of 4.6 hours.”

    For this sort of discussion, the average isn’t relevant. We don’t care about how long the kids were in the car after they were dead.

    What we (maybe) want to know is: How long in the car before the kids died? On average. And median. And some sort of minimum value.

    If kids die after being alone in a car for 5 minutes (they don’t), but the average time in the car for dead kids is 12 hours, well … that doesn’t mean that leaving kids in the car for 6 hours is safe.

  10. James Pollock June 23, 2017 at 12:58 pm #

    “’I don’t understand. They were playing while they died? Someone was watching them play and die while they were locked in a car?’
    No, they were playing when they got accidentally locked in the car. Meaning that a parent didn’t leave them in the car. The children were playing, got into the car without anyone knowing they were there, couldn’t get themselves out and died.”

    I read it as “they were awake at some point inside the car”… which you could tell by forensic examination, not how they got into the car in the first place. 25 percent of listed cases is about 57, which sounds like a high number of kids who got INTO the car on their own, but then didn’t or couldn’t get OUT again on their own.

    “What we (maybe) want to know is: How long in the car before the kids died? On average. And median. And some sort of minimum value.”

    All of which are unavailable, because we’re working with cases where the kids were found dead. The known quantities are “dead kid” and “after X amount of time”.
    To get the answers you want, we’d need to set up experiments wherein the experimenters watched the vehicle until the kids died, so they’d know the exact moment of death. I foresee some challenges in getting funding for clinical trials with this methodology, even if the information gathered were particularly useful.

    Unless one of the Sun Belt states wants to make “death by hot car” an official state method of execution…

  11. SKL June 23, 2017 at 1:42 pm #

    I think it would be helpful for people to know the # of minutes below which no child has ever died (or been seriously injured) from heat in a car. Based on what I have read, I think 30 minutes is a good limit. (Could be closer to an hour, but let’s be conservative.) Granted, it’s also relevant to know how fast the car gets extremely uncomfortable. OK maybe on a super hot and sunny day, 10 minutes. But that’s going to vary so much based on the conditions outside. The parent needs to make that kind of judgment.

    The other day someone posted that a woman was arrested for leaving her infant alone in a car in 80+ degree weather for an hour. The baby is OK though. So what does that tell us? Impossible to say without more information – but it would really be interesting to know why that baby was in a car for an hour and came out OK. (Not saying it’s OK to leave an infant alone in a car for an hour. Just trying to look at this scientifically.)

  12. Miriam Drukker June 23, 2017 at 1:49 pm #

    On a hot day – kids can die in the car very quickly. Not one minute, not 15 minutes, but young children can die in a car within an hour.
    But the real danger is not the car but the distraction. Once the parent forgets the child – that’s when it’s dangerous.
    The reason for ‘not leaving a child even one minute’ is to make sure you don’t forget the kids. And maybe it’s a valid argument. Parents forget kids not because they don’t care about their kids, but because they are exhausted and have too much on their minds. And sometimes they get distracted. Most deaths do not happen when a parent does a simple chore, like paying in the gas station – they happen when a parent goes on with her life – goes to work – and assumes that the child was dropped in daycare.
    The main problem is the exhaustion of the parent, caused by modern life and lack of a ‘village’ to care for the child. All the burden falls on the parent, and now, society decided that the solution is to add additional anxiety to the parent. That’s not the answer. The answer is to let parents sleep more. Maybe gas stations who want more customers will offer ‘watch your kids while you pay’ service to be more parent friendly. You can call the store, tell them that you’re leaving the child, and have them watch the child, even though cameras (that are installed in most gas stations today, I think).
    Idea?

  13. SKL June 23, 2017 at 1:57 pm #

    Miriam, the distraction issue is an argument for not putting your kids in the car in the first place, i.e. not driving them anywhere. So why isn’t that the PSA? “Don’t ever drive your kids anywhere, because you might forget them in the heat and they might die.”

    Telling parents not to leave their kids in the car in the 99.99% of the time that it is SAFE will not save one single life.

  14. Dean June 23, 2017 at 2:22 pm #

    I’m sure we were probably left waiting in the car other times, but one time has stayed in my mind as the beginning of a great adventure. I was about seven and my sister, four or five. We waited in the car on the busiest street of a “gang-infested” neighborhood while our parents went into a business with a name we didn’t understand. That wait resulted in the familly moving into the First Home of Our Own. The business was a real estate agent. How did we ever survive?

  15. Workshop June 23, 2017 at 2:23 pm #

    I left my oldest son in the car last summer. We got home, he didn’t want to come in, so I left him with the windows rolled down while I went into the house to cook dinner.

    My wife came home afterwards and started in on “OMG he was in the car etc.” I had to explain that, as a six-year-old, he is more than capable of opening the door to get out, the windows were open, and he wanted to sit and finish watching the movie he had on our Ipad. The discussion wasn’t pleasant, but children do not die being left alone for ten minutes. And I will not apologize for it.

  16. Jennifer C June 23, 2017 at 4:55 pm #

    My dad left me and my younger sister (I was four and my sister was three) in the car while he went to pick up my mom and my new baby brother from the hospital. This was in the seventies, and children weren’t allowed in the maternity ward because of germs. I was willing to sit quietly and read my book. My sister, however–who was very stubborn and never liked to stay put anywhere–announced she was going inside to find my mom and took off. My dad came out two minutes later to check on us and when I told him, he freaked out and ran back inside the hospital. Of course my sister was fine, she was with a nurse who had spotted her walking past the desk. Everyone was very nice and helpful and we all made it home just fine.

  17. Donna June 23, 2017 at 5:29 pm #

    “I read it as “they were awake at some point inside the car”… which you could tell by forensic examination, not how they got into the car in the first place.”

    Coroners can’t even determine time of death with precision and time last awake would be even more difficult to determine if it is even determinable. And why would this even be relevant enough to try to determine?

    Many other articles on the subject indicate that 25-30% (depending on article) of child hot car deaths are the result of children getting into the car unbeknownst to their parents.

    “25 percent of listed cases is about 57, which sounds like a high number of kids who got INTO the car on their own, but then didn’t or couldn’t get OUT again on their own.”

    Not really considering the vast majority of the victims are very young children, 70% under 2. Mom leaves door or trunk open after unloading the groceries, kid climbs in and the door or trunk either shuts after him or someone shuts it not realizing he’s in there, kid dies before anyone thinks to look in the car for him. Kid climbs in the car to play and has absolutely no idea why he is getting so hot and tired because he is a preschooler so he doesn’t get out of the car before he loses consciousness. Kids are playing hide and seek and one hides in the car and falls asleep never to wake up again.

  18. hineata June 23, 2017 at 6:12 pm #

    All this reminds me of the Samuel Rogers poem, Ginerva, though we are unlikely to have enough cars lying around that our children could suffocate and die therein and then go unnoticed for fifty years. However it is a whole lot of panic over not a lot, if we’re merely leaving our older (old enough to get out of the car themselves) kids in the car with the windows lowered for air flow, and wow, why don’t the authorities and busybodies just leave parents alone to parent? Am so thankful mine are all almost adults.

  19. James Pollock June 23, 2017 at 6:31 pm #

    “Coroners can’t even determine time of death with precision and time last awake would be even more difficult to determine if it is even determinable.”

    Finding out when they were last awake isn’t relevant.
    To tell IF they were awake, at some point, you look at how they were arranged and what other objects were around them. You won’t get firm determinations in all cases but you’ll get enough to make ballpark estimates… like, say, around 25%.

    Also note, the statistic cited above says more than 80% involved kids who were left unattended, which means that almost 20% of the hyperthermia deaths involved kids who were not unattended, and presumably some of the other 80% might involve other people who did not die… other children, witnesses who saw them in the car, etc.

  20. David N. Brown June 23, 2017 at 8:15 pm #

    Re “playing” in cars, I remember a local incident where a young child in a large family somehow climbed back into a van. In these cases like this, there’s slippery slope toward “blame the victim”. A definite factor is that the dangers aren’t immediately obvious, and by the time they are, it can be far more difficult to take appropriate action.

  21. Jay Pierson June 23, 2017 at 8:28 pm #

    I am glad I live were I live. Just this week as I was sitting in my car outside of McDonalds, I saw a mother come out of the restaurant and head to the van next to me. Inside I saw a little girl maybe 5 or 6 that had been waiting in the car without supervision. Several other people walked by the van while I was there and knew that this little girl was in the van. No one called the police and no one made a big deal out of it. I am still unhappy that I don’t see as many kids out playing during the day, like it was when I was a kid.

  22. Backroads June 23, 2017 at 10:57 pm #

    The real danger truly is forgetting your child. I have an irrational (could it be rational?) of making this mistake. In fact, I hesitated reading this article because I actively do not read about such things in order to help my sanity. I am more than happy to participate in a few little tricks. I keep my purse in the backseat and give my preschooler my phone to play with, and I even have a sticker of my girls on my steering wheel. The backseat tricks usually worked up until a couple weeks ago when said preschooler threw my phone at the window on the highway and this week when my toddler took the baggie holding Sister’s fallen tooth out of the purse and temporarily lost the tooth, all in the 3-minute drive to the dentist. But other than that, I have appreciated this.

    But golly, I am always leaving those girls in the car for 2-minute trips inside whatever building.

  23. Lauren Kinghorn June 23, 2017 at 11:27 pm #

    Hi, I hear you… crazy to arrest someone for that and that definitely doesn’t happen in our country. But unfortunately, here in South Africa there was a case where a baby was burnt to death in a car while their Mom was unpacking the groceries. Freak accident, electrical fault and as a result all the cars were recalled and re-fittted in case it ever happened again. Sad, sad story.

  24. Crazy Cat Lady June 24, 2017 at 1:28 am #

    Workshop, if a kid doesn’t know how to open a car door by age 6, then that child has some kind of learning differences or the parents are sadly negligent in teaching their child a skill that might save their life if the parent was in a car accident. If, say the adult was incapacitated, the child should be able to get out and save him/herself if there was a fire. Or go get help for the parent.

    I figure, if a kid is old enough according to the local school board to walk home from school alone, then the child can wait in the car, even at the store, if they want. I have told my kids that if someone questions them about being in the car they should grab their device and come into the store and find me. We often go swimming in the cold river and they want to stay in the car rather than go into the cold store while soaking wet.

  25. Joel June 24, 2017 at 6:04 am #

    What should happen is something like this. When you see a news story in your area maybe even in your city that says they are Prosecuting someone for this politely call your district attorney and inform them that you are going to begin a petition to have them fired over this do the same with the mayor and the chief of police see if this doesn’t get them to back off and sit down and be a good little dog and do what they’re told.

  26. pentamom June 24, 2017 at 10:23 am #

    Right, SKL, telling them never to leave the kids in the car does not solve the distraction issue because people ALREADY KNOW they shouldn’t forget to get their kids out of the car indefinitely, and distraction defeats THAT knowledge, too. If they’re distracted, then they’re going to forget regardless of whether they have a personal rule not to ever do it, because that’s what distraction is (in this context) — failure to do what you already know you’re supposed to do because you’re not focused. They’re no more likely to remember “I shouldn’t leave my kid in the car because I never do” than “I shouldn’t leave my kid in the car because that’s not what I intend to do.” Everyone already has an unwritten rule not to forget to do what they mean to do. Adding another rule doesn’t decrease your capacity to forget to do what you’re supposed to do. And creating a habit doesn’t help when the precise problem is that you’re going against habit by having your child in the car when you don’t normally do so (a high percentage of cases of children accidentally left in cars.)

  27. Donna June 24, 2017 at 11:28 am #

    “To tell IF they were awake, at some point, you look at how they were arranged and what other objects were around them. You won’t get firm determinations in all cases but you’ll get enough to make ballpark estimates… like, say, around 25%.”

    While I highly doubt you can actually determine this based on these things, all that tells you is maybe they were awake at some point between being strapped into the carseat and dying. Could have been before being left or after. Not sure why being awake at some point during that particular car trip is of even slight investigative interest that anyone would try to figure it out, let alone keep statistics of such information.

  28. James Pollock June 24, 2017 at 11:59 am #

    “While I highly doubt you can actually determine this based on these things”

    Really? The kid was in the back seat, in a safety seat, when mom or dad put them in the car. When the kid is discovered, he was in the driver’s seat. Was he ever awake in the car? There’s just no way to tell…
    Little Johnny and Little Susie were in the car. Johnny says Susie stopped talking and playing, and he thought she’d fallen asleep, but she was discovered to be dead. I guess there’s no way to tell if she was ever awake.
    Some random witness reported seeing Junior playing in the car, but he looked happy as a clam in there so the “witness” kept walking. They could be lying to cover up the fact that they didn’t do anything to get Junior out of the car before he died. There’s just no way to know for sure if Junior was ever awake.

    “Not sure why being awake at some point during that particular car trip is of even slight investigative interest that anyone would try to figure it out, let alone keep statistics of such information.”
    Kids who are awake can try to escape or summon help; kids who are asleep the whole time don’t do these things.
    The other thing you can’t track reliably is how many kids were unattended in a hot car, woke up sweltering, and either got out of the car or made enough ruckus to get someone to come get them out of the car. It seems to make a difference to people if someone died peacefully or not. (Old joke: I want to die quietly in my sleep, like grandpa, not kicking and screaming, like the passengers in the car he was driving.)

    Not sure why it matters to you if I buy into your interpretation of a vague passage, but I still don’t.

  29. Skip June 24, 2017 at 12:58 pm #

    Random data points from Texas so far this year:
    * Two deaths by parent who intentionally left the kids in the hot car to “teach them a lesson”:
    http://www.chron.com/news/texas/article/Authorities-Texas-mom-left-2-kids-in-hot-car-as-11244254.php
    * One death by parent who dropped off two kids at one location but forgot to drop off the baby at the other location before going to work:
    http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Seven-month-old-dead-after-left-in-hot-car-11244291.php

  30. James Pollock June 24, 2017 at 6:18 pm #

    And now, this–

    http://www.oregonlive.com/today/index.ssf/2017/06/police_mom_who_left_2_toddlers.html

  31. Crazy Cat Lady June 24, 2017 at 7:19 pm #

    From the story about the Texas parent who closed the door on the 1 and 2 year old when they wouldn’t come out thinking they could get out, went inside, smoked pot, napped and then found the kids dead….there is this.

    “In an effort to combat the rise in hot car deaths, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, introduced the Hot Cars Act of 2017. If passed, the legislation would require new cars to come equipped with a system for alerting the driver if a child is left in the back seat after the car is turned off.”

    Wouldn’t prevent people from doing what this parent did, but it would help with the cases where people forget the sleeping baby in the car. Depending on how it works, anyhow. Setting off the car alarm would certainly gain the attention of passerby’s. If it is an app for your phone….it wouldn’t work with a dead or lost phone very well.

  32. James Pollock June 24, 2017 at 7:55 pm #

    Intel developed a car seat that reminds you to get your kid out of the car, after a hot car death in one of their lots.

    https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2015/01/16/hot-car-deaths-intel-smart-clip/21849977/#

    There are several products available today. Of course, buying one means telling somebody that you think you might forget your baby… which very few people believe will happen to them until after it does. 100% of my children survived into adulthood… but I drove a pickup truck during my child’s infancy, so she was right beside me when she was in the car with me. I’ve left things (not infants) on the roof and then tried to drive off. I’ve gotten as far as starting the car and putting it in gear before being reminded that the gas nozzle was still sticking out of the side of my car before, too.

  33. Jenny Islander June 24, 2017 at 8:48 pm #

    Why does the most frightening and overblown recommendation get to become the PSA?

    What about “Always toss and check?” Always toss your purse or briefcase into the back seat so that you will have to check the back of the car to get it out. Most of the kids who die aren’t just left. They’re forgotten.

  34. Donna June 25, 2017 at 11:07 am #

    “Not sure why it matters to you if I buy into your interpretation of a vague passage, but I still don’t.”

    Don’t care. Just enjoy seeing how far you will go to argue a point that is clearly wrong and I don’t believe that you even believe, but simply want to argue for the sake of arguing. I’m now bored with it though.

  35. Lisa June 25, 2017 at 11:55 am #

    I think in this case in particular the concern is getting distracted and forgetting that you left your child in the car “for a minute”.
    I am by no means a helicopter mom. However, leaving children that are in car seats or otherwise too little to remove themselves from the car (even for a minute) makes me nervous.
    Then of course the argument comes in where the child could wander out of the car and into traffic…and thus we get on the merri-go-round that never ends…since it is impossible to make a risk free world.
    Sometimes u just have to count on people to make a reasonable decision for themselves….like anything else the results will not be 100% positive…but mostly to nearly all positive would be good enough….risk benefit analysis.

  36. Lisa June 25, 2017 at 12:15 pm #

    Several years ago 2 young boys in a nearby city died when they climbed into the trunk of a car and couldn’t get out. The parents noticed they were missing. The police were called. The police and family and friends and neighbors spent HOURS searching for these boys. They were finally found dead in the trunk of a car.
    That changed the police standard operating procedures in the cases of missing children. Now when a child is reported missing cars are checked FIRST. Also car manufactures began installing trunk releases inside trunks. (While trunk releases wouldn’t help children too little to know how to use them..they could have been helpful in this case as the boys were old enough to have been able to operate a trunk release).

  37. dancing on thin ice June 25, 2017 at 1:13 pm #

    I’d like to see research on what factors someone can take to minimize how much a car warms up before it becomes hot. (window shade, car model, color of car or interior, UV index)
    A car salesman told me they have a high end feature that runs the AC in a parked car if it is sunny.

    Saw a sign in a car window at the mall yesterday:

    A/C is on – 68 degrees
    Dog is happy and fine
    (cell phone number)

    Hopefully no one tried breaking a window, the pet was a pit bull.

  38. James Pollock June 25, 2017 at 1:59 pm #

    “Just enjoy seeing how far you will go to argue a point that is clearly wrong”

    Fine, I guess.
    But… which point was “clearly wrong”?

    You can tell if a child left in a car was awake if they were left in the back seat and found in the front seat?
    Or
    You can tell if a child left in a car was awake if there are witnesses who saw the child awake?

    ” I’m now bored with it though.”
    Yes, that’s why you went through the process of composing a reply and submitting it, I guess. Or are you saying you weren’t bored, just unable to resist, right up until the boredom set in precisely as you clicked on “submit comment”?

    Fascinating.

  39. pentamom June 26, 2017 at 10:59 am #

    “What about “Always toss and check?” Always toss your purse or briefcase into the back seat so that you will have to check the back of the car to get it out.”

    Not a bad rule, but of course it only works if you carry a purse or briefcase (or other item that you won’t ordinarily get out of the car without) with you wherever you go.

  40. DejahThoris June 27, 2017 at 1:33 pm #

    “What about “Always toss and check?” Always toss your purse or briefcase into the back seat so that you will have to check the back of the car to get it out. Most of the kids who die aren’t just left. They’re forgotten.

    Because whenever I see this suggested, there is a massive pile on of people saying, “What kind of a terrible parent needs any reminder about their kids being in the car? If you need to do something like this you care more about your cell phone or purse than your kid. Parents these days are so selfish to even need a reminder.”

  41. DejahThoris June 27, 2017 at 1:34 pm #

    These are of course the same people who will argue that even the most invasive laws are good if they save even one child. Apparently that doesn’t apply when choosing a simple and safe way to make sure the baby doesn’t fall through the swiss cheese holes in your brain…then how dare you need any help.