A Child's Body Temperature Can Exceed 100 Degrees After Just An Hour In A Hot Car

Jul 23, 2018

Kristie Reeves woke up to her clock blinking 9:43 a.m. She and her husband, Brett Cavaliero, had overslept. Their baby Sophia, or "Ray Ray," hadn't awakened them to be fed, which Kristi usually used as an alarm clock.

The Austin couple scrambled to get ready for work, but other than their oversleeping, Reeves said, it was a typical morning. She walked outside to say goodbye and watched as Cavaliero drove off to take Ray Ray to daycare.

But Cavaliero missed the usual turn and kept driving to his office.  

It wasn't until Reeves picked up her husband for a lunch date that it dawned on Cavaliero: He couldn't remember dropping the baby off.

"At that point, I literally floored the car and hurried to his office as quickly as I could," Reeves told KUT seven years after the incident.

They called 911 and when they got to Cavaliero's car, Reeves tried to resuscitate Ray Ray. First responders arrived 13 minutes later, but it was too late. Ray Ray had been in the car for just under three hours.

"That should prove how deadly and quickly these things can happen," Reeves said.

Since 1998, an average of 37 children have died nationwide each year from pediatric vehicular hyperthermia. There have been 26 deaths this year, according to Jan Null, a professor in the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science at San Jose State University. On Thursday, a 3-year-old boy died in Houston after being left in a hot van for four hours.

In a recent study on heat exposure, researchers at the University California, San Diego found that a child's body temperature can reach 104 degrees after one hour inside a car parked in the sun and two hours in the shade.

"For the majority of cases of a child dying in a car, it's from being forgotten," said Dr. Jennifer Vanos, lead author of the study. "And it's not forgotten for an hour; it's forgotten for a day when someone is at work or something."

Vanos has been studying the effects of extreme heat in different conditions for a decade. There have been other studies on this, she said, but they looked only at air temperature. Her study showed a range of possibilities, including radiation and exposure over the course of three days in three different types of cars.

Her team used a mathematical formula to determine the exact temperatures inside a car in relation to that of a toddler's body temperature.

Vanos said she's happy about the attention her study received from advocacy groups that helped spread awareness of forgetting a child in a hot car. But people on social media also asked how a parent could ever do that.

"You just have to take a deep breath," she said. "A lot of who this happens to are the best parents that you could ever imagine."

After Ray Ray died in 2011, Reeves began pushing for legislation that would prevent other hot car deaths. In 2015, her advocacy work was effective in helping get "Ray Ray's Law" passed in Texas. It mandates that hospitals and birthing centers inform new parents of the dangers of hot cars.

"Parents should be alerted to this danger at the same they get preached at about having the right car seat," Reeves said. "At that very same conversation, they should be having a conversation about the dangers of accidentally forgetting a child in the backseat and how quickly a car can heat up."

Last year, advocacy groups like Reeves' Ray Ray's Pledge and Kids and Cars were able to introduce the Hot Cars Act in Congress. It would require the auto industry to put sensors in cars to prevent passengers from being forgotten in the back seat.

Along with a variety of reminder apps, the "Bag in the Back" campaign encourages parents to leave something like a bag or a shoe in the back as a reminder to check the back seat. Reeves and Cavaliero have been using a reminder text system now with their almost 6-year-old twins.

"You know, this is the No. 1 noncrash-related vehicular killer of kids under the age of 14 and yet how many people have heard about it as a danger?" Reeves said. "I mean, it's ridiculous."