Children Left Unattended in Hot Cars


The worst thing you can do is think it could not happen to you because it does again and again – year after year. 

"This can and does happen to the most loving, responsible and attentive parents,” said Jannette Fennell, founder of Kids and Cars, who is tenacious in her arduous pursuit to have automakers integrate a sensor device that will prevent children from dying in hot cars.

Numerous, national news reports state that parents forget their child is in the backseat of the car because they have changed their routine, they are under unusual pressure, or they believe their child is being taken care of by another person – as ludicrous as this may sound.  Some parents think it's OK to leave their child unattended in a car for just a minute so they can run an errand but end up staying away for a much longer period of time.  It’s so easy to get distracted these days, isn’t it? Then again, some parents are consistently unkind to their children and have a propensity to act irresponsibly - placing them in harm’s way.  These parents will not take our advice and listen to reason or caution.  They listen to no one.

Eighteen U.S. children died from heat stroke while left unattended in vehicles this summer including 22-month-old Cooper Harris, who was found dead in suburban Atlanta after his father, Justin Ross Harris, left him in the car for over seven hours while he went to work.  Justin was subsequently charged with murder and second-degree child cruelty.

The mother insisted she had been gone for “only two minutes” but security cameras prove that the baby was left alone for nearly 40 minutes before the police arrived at the scene.

According to Child Safety Europe, there were 26 cases of heatstroke in France and Belgium, including seven fatalities from 2007 to 2009.  54% of the parents had intentionally left the child in the car, while 46% had simply forgotten to drop the child off.  Three deaths occurred last summer in Australia and Israel.

Forty-four children’s deaths were reported in the U.S. in 2013.  The Canadian government and health institutions do not have the means to collect national statistics, but the Canada Safety Council estimates between four to six children die of vehicular heatstroke in Canada each year.  So far this year – that number is zero. Hallelujah!

Montreal Police fined a mother $60.00 and filed a complaint with child protection services after officers had to break a window to reach her seven-month-old boy who was left in a car while she went shopping.

Witnesses heard the baby crying in the locked car and called 911.  A window had been left open slightly and the outside temperature was 25 C.  Police gave the baby water and he was later taken to hospital to be examined.

The mother insisted she had been gone for “only

two minutes” but security cameras prove otherwise.  The baby was left alone for nearly 40 minutes before the police arrived at the scene.

Police have turned the case over to Crown prosecutors, who may decide to file further charges.

Just recently a 40-year-old mother from St. Jerome, Quebec was fined $60, the maximum allowable fine (!!!), for leaving her two young children, aged four and nine years, in the backseat of her minivan when temperatures soared to nearly 37 C with humidity.

There should be zero tolerance in the eyes of the law when it comes to leaving children in cars.  

The penalty for seat belt infractions is a fine between $200 and $1,000 and convicted offenders will receive two demerit points. The penalty for leaving a child unattended in a car is $60.00. 

“For every 1% increase in seat belt usage, 5 lives in Canada are saved,” says Transport Canada.

Since seat belts were made mandatory, the number of people killed and injured in collisions in Ontario has steadily dropped.  So, it begs the questions.  If the penalty for leaving a child unattended in a car were commensurate with the offence, wouldn’t more children’s lives be saved?  Wouldn’t more people be aware of the dangers of leaving a child in a car?  How do you drive the message home?  If you can’t appeal to their common sense, appeal to their pocketbook.

Police and media from every state and every province in North America remind parents to think twice before leaving children in a car – even if it is for only 30 seconds to do a tiny errand. But it seems the very people that should pay heed believe these precautionary measures do not apply to them or their children.  Therein lies the conundrum – and the ultimate sadness.

Canadian Law

Canada’s Criminal Code offers some direction about when it’s appropriate to leave a child unattended.

Section 218 (R.S., 1985, c. C-46, s. 218; 2005, c. 32, s. 12.) under Federal Law of Canada’s Criminal Code states:

Every one who unlawfully abandons or exposes a child who is under the age of ten years, so that its life is or is likely to be endangered or its health is or is likely to be permanently injured,

(a) is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years; or
(b) is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding eighteen months.

Ontario parents who leave their young unattended may also be subject to the province’s Child and Family Services Act, which outlines behaviour that could prompt an investigation by a local Children’s Aid Society.  This legislation pertains to children 16 and younger, unless the child is already in the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) system, in which case the cut-off extends to 18 years.

The section most relevant to child abandonment in Ontario dictates that a child is in need of protection when he or she has suffered physical harm as a result of their parent’s “failure to adequately care for, provide for, supervise or protect the child.”

State Law in the U.S.

As of July 1, 2014, Tennessee is the only state where you can legally smash a window or otherwise forcibly enter a parked car without liability if you have “a good faith belief” the actions help a minor who will suffer “harm if not immediately removed from the vehicle.”

While other states have broad laws that protect good Samaritans from lawsuits, this is a landmark piece of legislation because it specifically addresses children that are left unattended in cars.

It is illegal to leave a child unattended in a vehicle in 19 states.  Parents and caregivers could face desertion charges. 

State law describes "unattended" as "a child who has been left in a motor vehicle when the driver or operator of the vehicle is more than 10 feet from the vehicle and unable to continuously observe the child."

Tennessee is the only state where you can legally smash a window or otherwise forcibly enter a parked car without liability if you have “a good faith belief” the actions help a minor who will suffer “harm if not immediately removed from the vehicle.”


Heatstroke can happen when the temperature is as low as 14 Celsius (57° F) and car interiors can reach well over 43 Celsius (110° F) because solar radiation is trapped in the vehicle. 

On a summer day, the temperature inside a car can soar to 50 Celsius (122° F) in as little as 10 to 20 minutes.

A child’s body temperature can heat up 3 to 5 times faster than an adult’s temperature because it is not as efficient in regulating body temperature.

At a body temperature of 41 Celsius (107° F), human cells are damaged and internal organs begin to shut down.

A child left in a sweltering car could go into shock, have organ failure and die — sometimes even after being rushed to hospital.

Cracking a window does not keep a car cool and does not provide adequate oxygen a child to breathe.

Children can gain access to a car that is unlocked in a garage or driveway.  While inside the car they become overwhelmed by the heat or find themselves trapped and can't get out of the car.  18% of children who succumb to heat stroke crawl into parked cars by themselves.

According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, hot vehicles are the primary non-crash vehicular related killer of children under the age of 14. 

Children less than one year of age are the most common victim. 

Safety Tips

NEVER, EVER leave your children alone in a vehicle – no matter what the season – no matter what the reason.

Make it a habit to place your cell phone, purse, briefcase, or wallet next to your child’s car seat to ensure you open the back door of the vehicle before leaving for your next destination.  Alternately, you can place a stuffed toy in the front seat as a reminder that your child is in the backseat.

You may be more distracted or anxious during holidays or schedule changes, so devise a system that will keep you focussed during these hectic times.

Ask your daycare provider to call you within a few minutes if your child does not show up when expected, and as well, make sure they know you will call them if your child will not be in attendance on a particular day.

Always lock your car to prevent children from gaining access.

Keep your car keys and remote openers out of sight and reach from your children at all times.

Teach children that a car is not a play area.

The moment you realize a child is missing, check your vehicle and trunk and then your pool.

Use drive-thru services when running errands such as banking, dry cleaning and food establishments. 

Use a debit or credit card to pay for gas at the pump.

Educate family members and caretakers about car seat safety before you leave your children in their hands.

If You See A Young Child in A Parked Car

  1. Don’t hesitate…Call 911 immediately.
  2. Attempt to locate the parents.
  3. If you happen to be at the site with someone else - one person could search for the parent while the other person waits at the car.
  4. If the child is not responsive or appears in distress, attempt to get into the car.
  5. If you are successful in getting the child out of the car, begin a rapid cooling process by taking the child to a cool environment, undressing the child, and sponging with cool water.

What are the Warning Signs of Heatstroke?

Babies and young children can overheat quite easily because their tiny bodies do not have the capability to regulate body heat as efficiently as adults do - therefore, their body temperature will rise quickly.  Heat stroke indicates that a person’s body temperature is higher than 40 Celsius (104° F), and possibly as high as 41 Celsius (106° F).  Here are some warning signs of heatstroke:

  • Red, hot dry skin
  • Irritability and moodiness
  • A rapid, strong pulse but weak heart rate
  • Weakness, dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion and delirium
  • Rapid breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Convulsion

If your child exhibits these symptoms:

  • Call 911 immediately
  • Move the child to a cool environment
  • Undress the child
  • Sponge the child with cool water

Do NOT give the child a fever reducer like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.  These medicines are not effective in reducing a high body temperature caused by heat stroke.

Closing Notes

It is imperative for parents to understand the risks they are taking by leaving their children unattended in cars – even for 30 seconds.  Children rely on parents for their health, happiness, security and well-being.  It is imperative for parents to act responsibly by providing safeguards for their children.  After all, our children are our first priority.

The automotive industry has been sensitive to this problem for many years but have yet to come up with a solution that they believe is both reliable and fool proof.

While technology does exist to equip vehicles with a sensor or warning device system that would alert the driver if a child is left in a vehicle (no different than sensors that detect low tires, keys and seat belts), the U.S. Department of Transportation concurs, along with automakers, that the solution to child vehicular heatstroke deaths is education and awareness.

Everyone looks forward to the summer months.  Weekends at the cottage, a stroll through a park or a day at the beach would readily put a smile on my face.  Unfortunately, for the past few years when I point my face towards the sunny sky I get a nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach knowing that just beyond the next corner, on any given day, I will read about one more child that has died from heatstroke in a car.  How many times does history have to repeat itself?  More importantly, how many times do children have to pay the price for our mistakes?

“This article is dedicated to all those wonderful people who have their eyes and ears open – rescuing our children from a dreadful demise.  YOU know who you are.  You stand guard for those little people that cannot defend themselves and somehow through your periphery you catch a glimpse of their face or hear their cry and come to their rescue.  These children are left alone in precarious situations and it is only through your attentiveness, kindness and humanitarian efforts they are alive today.”

“On behalf of everyone at Children's Health and Safety Association, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.  We need you to know that you are our heroes and we will forever be grateful.”  – excerpt from ‘Thank You to Our Heroes’ article below.

 Written by Veronika Bradley, Editor for Children’s Health and Safety Association – July 12, 2014 and  republished for Diligencia Investigative Reporting - April 2019

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