Residents of the Washington, DC metro area are still writhing and withering under the “Heat Dome.” If you think it’s hot outside, it’s even hotter inside your car. Every 10 days, across the United States, a child dies while unattended in a hot vehicle. It only takes a few minutes for a car to heat up and become deadly to a child inside. Extreme heat events, including a “Heat Dome,” can cause heat-related mortality. In fact, excessive heat events kill more people, including children, in the United States than “hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.”

As summertime temperatures rise, more kids are at risk. Tragically, nine children in the United States under the age of four have died in hot cars since Memorial Day. What is more, 18 children have perished in hot cars since the beginning of the year. Today is the seventh straight day of high heat in the 90s across the metro region, and area meteorologists have a hunch it will be gradually cooler by this weekend.

Even if temperatures dip into the low to mid-80s, that doesn’t mean a car with the windows rolled down, or one that is parked in the shade, or a car on an overcast day, is a safe haven for children or elderly passengers. What may be surprising to know is nine of these 18 deaths occurred on days when temperatures were below 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat stroke is the leading cause of non-crash, vehicle related deaths for children under the age of 14, with an average of 37 fatalities per year since 1998. 

In the past two decades, 761 children left in vehicles have died of heatstroke, hyperthermia, or other complications. From 1998 to 2017, 21 of those deaths occurred in Virginia, 14 mortalities took place in Maryland, and one such death transpired in the District of Columbia.

“In the summer heat, a vehicle’s interior can reach lethal temperatures very quickly, essentially creating an oven, causing a child’s internal organs to shut down if left unattended inside,” said John B. Townsend II,  spokesperson for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “Young children, the aged, the infirmed, members of sensitive groups, adults with respiratory and heart ailments, and pets should never be left alone in a vehicle under any circumstances. Make it a routine to look twice and check the back seat for children before you leave and lock the car. If you have to put a reminder post-it note on your dashboard, an alarm on your phone or a stuffed animal in the front seat to remember to take a child out of the car, do it.”

AAA has joined with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to remind parents and caregivers about the deadly consequences of leaving children in hot cars and to urge them to “look before you lock.” Heatstroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided. For safety’s sake, parents and caregivers should carry a device such as a “keychain Car Escape Tool” or keep an “Auto Escape Tool” in their well-stocked emergency roadside kits. In an emergency situation, the tool will empower rescuers to shatter tempered glass windows in hot vehicles or cut seatbelts in a matter of seconds.

Also be mindful of the effects of heat-trapping emissions on “Code Orange” air quality days on “sensitive groups, including young children, throughout the Washington metropolitan area. Tuesday, July 3 was declared a “Code Orange” by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. During 2017, the region recorded “just eight Code Orange” days. Knowing how to keep cool during under the “heat dome” or during long periods of hot weather can help save lives, especially among the elderly, the very young and people with chronic medical conditions. Avoid the heat. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, even if you do not feel thirsty. A “ heat dome,” is a weather phenomenon that “traps hot air underneath its high pressure system.” It acts like “an atmospheric lid, preventing hot air from escaping.”

Studies have shown about 51 percent of child hot-car deaths in vehicles were caused by adults forgetting children, and 29 percent of victims were playing in an unattended vehicle.

Some statistics:

  • Vehicle heatstroke claimed the lives of 39 children last year (up 63 percent from 24 deaths in 2015).
  • To date, 18 children have died from vehicular heatstroke in 2018, nine since Memorial Day.
  • A child’s body heats up three to five times faster than an adult’s body.
  • A child can die of heat stroke on a 72-degree day.
  • On a 95-degree day a car can heat up to over 180-degrees
  • A steering wheel can reach 159 degrees (temperature for cooking medium rare meat).
  • Seats can reach 162 degrees (temperature for cooking ground beef).
  • The dash can reach 181 degrees (temperature for cooking poultry).
  • At 104-degrees, internal organs start to shut down.

“Heat is one of the deadliest weather events, killing hundreds of people every year,” health officials warn. “Excessive heat events, or abrupt and dramatic temperature increases, are particularly dangerous and can result in above-average rates of mortality,” cautions the United States Environmental Protection Agency. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that from 1979–2003, excessive heat exposure contributed to more than 8,000 premature deaths in the United States. This figure exceeds the number of mortalities resulting from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.”

It is against the law in Maryland, and 18 other states, to leave a child unattended in a vehicle. The Maryland family law pertains to a child under the age of eight years. This is punishable in Maryland by fines or imprisonment. However, under Maryland Family Law, §5–801, a child “may be in a vehicle, if an older child,” who is at least 13 years old, “is also present.” Virginia and Washington, D.C. have not promulgated laws on the books concerning parents or caretakers leaving children unattended in vehicles.

AAA Mid-Atlantic Urges Motorists To ACT:

  • A—Avoid heatstroke by never leaving a child in the car alone, not even for a minute. 
  • C—Create electronic reminders or put something in the backseat you need when exiting the car - for example, a cell phone, purse, wallet, briefcase or shoes.  Always lock your car and never leave car keys or car remote where children can get to them.
  • T—Take action and immediately call 9-1-1 if you notice a child unattended in a car.

Here are words to live by: “Stay cool, stay hydrated, stay safe!” AAA Mid-Atlantic’s efforts to make all drivers aware of this issue includes a video showing just how hot the inside of a vehicle can become.

Also beware of the “Heat Island” impacts in urbanized area and in the nation’s capital. “On a hot, sunny summer day, roof and pavement surface temperatures can be 50–90°F (27–50°C) hotter than the air, while shaded or moist surfaces—often in more rural surroundings—remain close to air temperatures,” warns the EPA. “Air temperatures in cities, particularly after sunset, can be as much as 22°F (12°C) warmer than the air in neighboring, less developed regions.”