Protecting Our Precious Passengers: A Guide to Preventing Vehicular Heatstroke and Ensuring Car Safety

Heatstroke and vehicular accidents can happen when you least expect it. Parents take note: these tips are vital to keeping your kids safe, both on regular trips and especially during summer vacations. Read on for essential insights

Experts have weighed in. 2023 has broken several heat records, and as reported by Berkeley Earth in a recent USA Today article, the effects of climate change will be felt this year more than ever before, saying “more likely than not that 2023 will set a new record for the warmest annual average”.

So, how are you keeping your children safe in this heat? 

In increasingly warm weather, now is the time to become even more vigilant about heat-related illnesses, road safety during long, hot days on the road, and of course, our primary advocacy: preventing Pediatric Vehicular Heatstroke (PVH) or hot car deaths in children.

Pediatric vehicular heatstroke is a tragic and heartbreaking cause of death in children, more so because it is usually preventable. 

The Sofia Foundation of Children’s Safety is dedicated to reducing these devastating incidents through our flagship campaign, Bag In The Back. Our mission, borne out of the grief of our founder, Karen Osorio, who lost her daughter Sofia to an accidental hot car tragedy, is to help parents and caregivers avoid the horrific loss of a child due to hot car deaths by providing a wealth of easily shareable and downloadable resources that promote the simple habit of placing a bag or essential item such as a smartphone, wallet or house keys in the back seat to prompt busy adults to always remember that a child is in the car and to never leave them alone even “just for a few minutes”.

In light of this advocacy, join us as we highlight essential tips to help prevent pediatric vehicular heatstroke and other road-related accidents all for the goal of helping keep our young passengers safe this summer and the whole year round.

Reinforcing Car Safety: Going Beyond the Bag In The Back Habit

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), dozens of children die in the U.S. every year after being left alone in parked cars, where temperatures can rise rapidly even on cool days. 

The statistics around heat stroke-related child deaths in vehicles are both alarming and disheartening. Already this year, 15 deaths have been reported due to overheating in vehicles. Tragically, each year an average of 38 children under the age of 15 lose their lives in this way. Since 1998, nearly every state in the US has witnessed at least one such death.

The years 2018 and 2019 saw a record number of 53 children passing away each year due to being accidentally left inside hot vehicles. It’s essential that we use this information to remain vigilant and take every possible precaution to ensure that our children are not put in danger due to negligence or oversight.

TheBag In The Back habit is a simple yet powerful practice that can help prevent tragic incidents of vehicular heatstroke. 

It involves placing an essential item, such as a purse or briefcase, in the back seat of the vehicle, ensuring that parents or caregivers always check the back seat before leaving the car. This small action can serve as a powerful reminder to never leave a child unattended in a hot car.

All of this said, car safety in the summer months goes beyond addressing the risks of vehicular heatstroke.

It is crucial to consider additional factors such as the dangers of hot seat belts and car seat buckles, ensuring proper hydration for children during long trips, and being aware of other potential hazards associated with summer driving, such as increased tire blowouts due to hot road surfaces.

With summer in full swing, let’s explore 8 vital practices that can enhance child safety in vehicles during the scorching summer months:

1. Correct Car Seat Installation: A Fundamental Step

Installing a car seat correctly is paramount to a child’s safety. Improper installation can lead to serious consequences in the event of an accident. Here’s an alarming statistic: only 15% of car seats are reportedly installed correctly, making this a critical area of concern.

Parents and caregivers should refer to their vehicle’s manual and the car seat manufacturer’s instructions to ensure the seat is securely and appropriately installed.

Many local fire departments, police stations, and child safety organizations offer car seat inspection services to help caregivers confidently install seats.

2. Buckle Up for Safety: Seat Belts Matter

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), seat belt use is one of the most effective ways to save lives and reduce injuries in crashes. Adults, therefore, should always wear their seat belts, setting a positive example for young passengers. 

But in a shocking statistic, millions of people do not buckle up on every trip. In 2018, more than half of teens and adults (aged 20-44) who died in crashes were not buckled up at the time of the crash.

Children should be properly secured in age-appropriate car seats or booster seats until they meet the height and weight requirements to use regular seat belts. 

Seat belts save lives, and ensuring everyone in the vehicle is buckled up is a simple yet impactful way to promote safety.

3. Rear-Facing Seats for Infants and Toddlers

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) indicates that young children are safest in rear-facing Car Safety Seats (CSS) until they outgrow the manufacturer’s recommended weight and height limits. 

This means that you should never switch your child to a forward-facing seat based on their age alone. A rear-facing position provides better protection for their fragile necks and spines during sudden stops or collisions.

Once your child has outgrown their rear-facing car seat, you can then switch them to a forward-facing seat with a harness. It is important to continue using a car seat with a harness for as long as possible, at least until age four.

4. Avoid Leaving Children Unattended

Leaving children unattended in a vehicle, even for a moment, can be a very dangerous and risky decision. Temperatures inside a car can rise very quickly and become dangerously high, placing children at risk for heatstroke and dehydration.

Here are a few points to consider:

  • Heatstroke is a serious medical condition that can cause brain damage, organ damage, and even death.
  • Young children are at a higher risk for heatstroke than adults because their body temperature rises much faster than that of an adult.
  • Heatstroke can happen quickly, in as little as 10 to 20 minutes, especially on a hot day.
  • Even if it’s a mild or cloudy day, the temperature inside a car can quickly become dangerously high, exceeding outdoor temperatures by 20-30 degrees Fahrenheit, or more.
  • Cracking the windows does not significantly reduce the temperature inside a vehicle.

So please, avoid leaving children unattended in a car, even for a few minutes. It’s always better to be safe and bring your child with you, even if it means waking them up from a nap or making an extra trip.

5. Create Reminders and Alerts

Creating reminders and alerts can be a helpful strategy to ensure that you never forget to check the back seat before exiting the car. This simple habit can help prevent unintentional incidents and provide an extra layer of protection for your child’s safety.

Here are a few strategies for setting reminders:

  • Set reminders on your phone. Utilize the reminder function on your smartphone to set specific times or intervals for checking the back seat. Choose a time that aligns with your routine, such as when you arrive at your destination or when you typically exit the vehicle.

  • Use specialized apps. There are also specialized apps available designed specifically to help prevent accidentally leaving children unattended in a car. These apps often include features like automatic reminders, customizable alerts, and even notifications to emergency contacts in case you don’t respond to the reminder.

  • Make it a habit. Consistency is key when it comes to creating reminders. By establishing a routine and consistently setting reminders, it becomes a habit and a natural part of your daily routine.
     

Remember, even the most attentive and responsible caregivers can sometimes forget to check the back seat in stressful or chaotic situations. Reminders and alerts are a simple, effective way to add an extra layer of protection that helps minimize the risk of unintentional incidents.

6. Keep Kids (And Yourself) Hydrated

The combination of rising temperatures and confined spaces inside vehicles can lead to rapid dehydration for adults and children alike.

Here are a few compelling reasons why staying hydrated while in vehicles during hot summer months is crucial:

  • Elevated Heat Levels. The interior of a parked car can quickly become a sweltering environment, with temperatures soaring to dangerous levels, even if it’s only for a short duration. Dehydration can occur rapidly in these conditions, as children’s bodies lose water through sweating and breathing faster than they can replace it.

  • Higher Vulnerability. Children are more susceptible to dehydration than adults due to their smaller size and higher metabolic rate. This makes them more prone to heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion or heatstroke. Proper hydration helps maintain their body’s core temperature and minimizes the risk of these health concerns.

  • Limited Thirst Perception. Young children might not always recognize their own thirst cues or communicate their hydration needs effectively, most especially at the height of summer’s fun activities. Adults and caregivers must take the initiative to ensure kids are drinking enough fluids, especially in situations like car rides where distractions are common.

  • Cognitive and Physical Performance. Dehydration can significantly impact cognitive function and physical performance. Children who are inadequately hydrated may become fatigued, irritable, or have difficulty concentrating. This can be particularly hazardous during car trips, where alertness and focus are essential for safety.

Preventing Medical Emergencies. Keeping a supply of water or hydrating beverages readily available during car journeys can help address thirst and mitigate potential health risks.

7. Stay Informed and Educated

Keeping up with the latest car seat guidelines and safety recommendations is important to ensure the well-being of children while traveling in vehicles. Here are a few ways to stay informed:

  • Online resources. There are various websites and online platforms that provide valuable information on car seat safety. Some reputable sources include the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) website, and car seat manufacturers’ websites.

  • Email newsletters and alerts. Many organizations and websites offer email newsletters or alerts that provide regular updates on car seat safety, allowing you to receive important information directly to your inbox.

  • Follow social media accounts of organizations and experts in child passenger safety. This way, you can get firsthand content on child safety straight from the experts. 


Attend car seat safety events or classes. Some local communities or organizations hold car seat safety events or classes, where professionals can provide hands-on demonstrations, answer questions, and provide up-to-date information on car seat safety.

8. Car Safety Checks Are Crucial

Because the summer months present unique challenges that warrant additional precautions, taking a few moments for car safety checks before setting off on your family adventure can make all the difference in ensuring a smooth and worry-free journey. 

Here are some safety tips to keep in mind:

  • Inspecting tires and fluids. Start by checking your vehicle’s tires, ensuring that they are properly inflated and have sufficient tread depth. High temperatures can lead to tire blowouts, so it’s essential to ensure your tires are fit for the road. Additionally, inspect key fluids such as engine oil, coolant, and brake fluid. The summer heat can put extra strain on your vehicle, making these fluid levels even more critical in preventing potential breakdowns or damage.

  • Checking the air conditioning system. Prior to your trip, test the air conditioning system to ensure it is cooling effectively. If necessary, have a professional inspect and service the system to avoid any discomfort or health risks due to excessive heat inside the vehicle.

  • Examining lights and wipers. Proper visibility is crucial, especially during summer storms or when driving at night. Check all exterior lights, including headlights, taillights, brake lights, and turn signals, to ensure they are in proper working condition. Additionally, inspect your windshield wipers to guarantee they can effectively clear rain or debris, enhancing visibility during adverse weather conditions.


Ensuring child safety. Aside from ensuring car seats and booster seats are installed correctly, make sure that the car seats are not too hot before buckling in your child, as extreme temperatures can cause discomfort or even burns.

Find everything you need to ensure the tragedy of hot car deaths never happens to you or your loved ones –  help us get the word out about the Bag In The Back habit.

What’s new at Sofia’s Foundation for Children’s Safety?

In addition to the Bag In The Back campaign, the Sofia Foundation for Children’s Safety is actively developing a comprehensive whitepaper that delves into the common risks and injuries children face around cars.

This whitepaper will provide valuable insights and information to parents, caregivers, and healthcare providers, equipping them with the knowledge to prevent accidents and protect children from harm. Through a dedication to research and education, the foundation aims to create a safer environment for children, both inside and outside of vehicles.

Follow us on social media or look out for updates in your inbox for the latest news here at the Sofia Foundation for Children’s Safety:

If you’re interested in doing more to prevent vehicular heatstroke, consider making a donation and supporting Bag in the Back.