This article appears in August Family magazine.
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It can take just about an hour for a child trapped in a car to suffer heat injury or even die from hyperthermia. For parents who think it could never happen to them, experts say it’s an all-too-human mistake.
In the United States one child dies from heatstroke in a vehicle every 10 days, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Since 1998, there have been 761 pediatric vehicular heatstroke deaths, including 18 this year as of July 1, according to NoHeatStroke.org, from the Department of Meteorology & Climate Science at San Jose State University.

“Admitting that you might forget your child in the car doesn’t make you a bad parent,” said Joshua Klapow, clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, and yet every year an average of 37 children die in hot cars. and only a very small number of instances involve children being left intentionally.”
Too hot, too fast
Researchers from Arizona State University and the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine recently concluded a study comparing how different types of cars warm up on hot days when exposed to different amounts of shade and sunlight, and how the heat would affect a 2-year-old trapped in the car. The study was published in the journal Temperature.

The tests replicated what could happen to a child left in the car over the time of an average shopping trip, said Nancy Selover, an Arizona State climatologist.

The average cabin temperature hit 116 degrees in one hour for cars parked in the sun. Dashboards averaged 157 degrees, steering wheels 127 degrees and seats 123 degrees in that time. For vehicles parked in the shade, interior temperatures were closer to 100 degrees after one hour. Dashboards averaged 118 degrees, steering wheels 107 degrees and seats 105 degrees.
Set up cues
“You must assume it could happen to you. Even if you think it won’t. Then set your environment up to give you constant cues,” Klapow said.
Gene Brewer, an Arizona State University associate professor of psychology who was not involved in the heat study, researches memory processes and has testified as an expert witness in a court case involving a parent whose child died in a hot car. He says leaving a child in a car often happens because a parent is distracted. Memory failure is powerful and can happen to anyone.

“Functionally, there’s not much difference between forgetting your car keys and forgetting your child in a car,” Brewer said.
Create your own cues by putting a reminder on your phone to check for your child when you get to where you work, Klapow said.
“There are also child alert apps that focus on movement in the car and/or geolocation to send you alerts,” he said.
Place a sticky note on your car dashboard — something as simple as “check Stevie” — or place an item of clothing in your bag, purse or briefcase to serve as a cue or reminder, Klapow said.

Another idea is to take off a shoe and place it on the other side of the car seat so that you will have to reach over the child to get the shoe, Brewer said.

“Every step you take without a shoe will be a big cue that the child is still in the car,” he said.

“Be extremely careful and cautious if you are off your routine. A different route, a different driver, etc.: This is the greatest-risk situation,” Klapow said.