Heatstroke Deaths of
Children in Vehicles

by Jan Null, CCM
Department of Meteorology & Climate Science
San Jose State University

Updated April 21, 2015

FACT SHEETSEnglish, Español
[Note: This study has now been published in
Pediatrics. Click
here to download ]

There has been the first 2015 death of a child in a hot vehicle in the United States. In 2014 there were at least thirty heatstroke deaths of children in vehicles; twenty-five confirmed as heatstroke and five are still inconclusive pending official findings by the medical examiner.  In the previous year, 2013, there were at least forty-four deaths of children in vehicles; thirty-nine which has been confirmed as heatstroke and five which, based upon the known circumstances, are most likely heatstroke (2013 list).  In 2012 there were 34 deaths of children due to hyperthermia (heatstroke) after being left in or having gained access to hot cars, trucks, vans and SUV's.  Since 1998 there have been at least 636 documented cases of heatstroke deaths of children in vehicles.  This data and study shows that these incidents can occur on days with relatively mild (i.e., ~ 70 degrees F) temperatures and that vehicles can reach life-threatening temperatures very rapidly.

There are also far too many "close calls" that fortunately do not result in a tragic death.  Some of those are documented here.


  • Total number of U.S. heatstroke deaths of children left in cars, 2015:  1
  • Total number of U.S. heatstroke deaths of children left in cars, 2014:  30
  • Total number of U.S. heatstroke  deaths of children left in cars, 1998-present:  637
  • Average number of U.S. child heatstroke fatalities per year since 1998: 37
  • See Monthly Statistics
  • See Per Capita Deaths by State


  • Circumstances

    • An examination of media reports about the 636 child vehicular heatstroke deaths for a seventeen year period (1998 through 2014) shows the following circumstances:

      • 53% - child "forgotten" by caregiver (336 Children)

      • 29% - child playing in unattended vehicle (186)

      • 17% - child intentionally left in vehicle by adult  (110)

      • 1% - circumstances unknown (4)

  • Ages

    The children that have died from vehicular heatstroke in the United States (1998-2014) have ranged in age from 5 days to 14 years of age.  More than half of the deaths are children under 2 years of age.  Below are the percentage of total deaths (and the number of deaths) sorted by age.
    • <1-year old = 31% (197)

    • 1-year old = 22% (142)

    • 2-years old = 20% (126)

    • 3-years old = 13% (82)

    • 4-years old = 6% (39)

    • 5-years old = 3% (22)

    • 6-years old = 1% (9)

    • 7-years old = < 1% (3)

    • 8-years old = <1% (3)

    • 9-years old = < 1% (2)

    • 10-years old = < 1% (3)

    • 11-years old = < 1% (2)

    • 12-years old = < 1% (1)

    • 13-years old = < 1% (1)

    •  14-years old = < 1% (3) 

    • Unknown = < 1% (1)

Click map for 2015 details 
2014 Fatalities 2013 Fatalities 2012 Fatalities
2011 Fatalities 2010 Fatalities 2009 Fatalities
2008 Fatalities 2007 Fatalities 2006 Fatalities
2005 Fatalities
2004 Fatalities 1998-2014 Fatalities by State

Click links and maps above for expanded details 

Airbags vs. Heatstroke Deaths

  • In the three-year period of 1990-1992, before airbags became popular, there were only 11 known deaths of children from heatstroke .

  • In the most recent three-year period of 2011-2013, when almost all young children are now placed in back seats instead of front seats, there have been at least 109 known fatalities from heatstroke...a ten-fold increase from the rate of the early 1990s. (graphic) [Important note: This in no way implies that it is advocated that children be placed in the front seat or that airbags be disabled.]


  • Only 20 states have laws specifically addressing leaving a child unattended in a vehicle.

  •  Good Samaritan Laws may protect persons who see a child in a car and take action to render assistance.
The remaining 30 states do not have laws specifically against leaving a child unattended in a vehicle
  • Another 14 states have had previously proposed unattended child laws
  • An Associated Press (AP) study "Wide disparity exists in sentences for leaving kids to die in hot cars" examined both the frequency of prosecutions and length of sentences in hyperthermia deaths
    -  Charges were files in 49% of all the deaths.  81% resulted in convictions.
    -  In cases with paid caregivers (i.e., childcare workers, babysitters) 84% were charged and 96% convicted
    -  Only 7% of the cases involved drugs or alcohol


  • Heatstroke occurs when a person's temperature exceeds 104 degrees F and their thermoregulatory mechanism is  overwhelmed
    -  Symptoms include :  dizziness, disorientation, agitation, confusion, sluggishness, seizure, hot dry skin that is flushed but not sweaty, loss of consciousness, rapid heart beat, hallucinations
  • A core body temperature of 107 degrees F or greater can be lethal as cells are damaged and internal organs begin to shut down. 
  • Children's thermoregulatory systems are not as efficient as an adult's and their body temperatures warm at a rate 3 to 5 times faster than an adult’s.


The atmosphere and the windows of a car are relatively “transparent” to the sun’s shortwave radiation (yellow in figure below) and are warmed little.  However this shortwave energy does heat objects that it strikes.  For example, a dark dashboard or seat can easily reach temperatures in the range of 180 to over 200 degrees F.

These objects (e.g., dashboard, steering wheel, childseat) heat the adjacent air by conduction and convection and also give off longwave radiation (red) which is very efficient at warming the air trapped inside a vehicle.


Objects Heated by the Sun Warm Vehicle's Air

( Hi-Res ~ 2.5 mb.WMV, MPEG4 file)
Individual Frames:
0 min, 10 min, 20 min, 30 min, 40 min, 50 min, 60 min
(Animation Courtesy of General Motors)


  • Study of temperature rise in enclosed cars on 16 dates between May 16 and Aug. 8, 2002.
  • Ambient temperature were between 72 and 96 degrees F.
  • Dark Blue mid-side sedan with medium grey interior
  • Also tested with windows “cracked”

click to enlarge images

All 16 Cases

Average Temperature Rise


  • Average elapsed time and temperature rise
    • 10 minutes ~ 19 deg F
    • 20 minutes ~ 29 deg F
    • 30 minutes ~ 34 deg F
    • 60 minutes ~ 43 deg F
    • 1 to 2 hours ~ 45-50 deg F
  • “Cracking” the windows had little effect
  • Vehicle interior color probably biggest factor
  • "Parents and other caregivers need to be educated that a vehicle is not a babysitter or play area ... but it can easily become tragedy"


  • Be sure that all occupants leave the vehicle when unloading. Don't overlook sleeping babies.
  • Always lock your car and ensure children do not have access to keys or remote entry devices.  IF A CHILD IS MISSING, ALWAYS CHECK THE POOL FIRST, AND THEN THE CAR, INCLUDING THE TRUNK. Teach your children that vehicles are never to be used as a play area. 
  • Keep a stuffed animal in the carseat and when the child is put in the seat place the animal in the front with the driver.
  • Or place your purse or briefcase in the back seat as a reminder that you have your child in the car.
  • Make "look before you leave" a routine whenever you get out of the car.
  • Have a plan that your childcare provider will call you if your child does not show up for school.

"Beat the Heat, Check the Backseat"

National Weather Service



Jan Null, CCM
San jose State University
Phone: (408) 379-7500


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