14 children have died in hot cars in 2023. Heat waves have made it more dangerous.

If there's anything hotter than the record-breaking temperatures felt across much of the United States in recent weeks, it's the temperature inside a car parked outside in the sweltering heat. That's where some of the most devastating tragedies unfold when children are inadvertently left behind.

At least 14 children have died in hot cars so far in 2023, bringing to 1,000 the number who have died that way during the past three decades.

On Tuesday, a Florida babysitter said she forgot a 10-month-old baby girl in a car when she went inside to watch other children. She said she realized the baby was still in the car when her mother came to pick her up several hours later.

The child died as temperature rose to more than 133 degrees in the vehicle, police said. The babysitter was charged in the death.

"We have lost way too many children," said Janette Fennell, founder and president of advocacy group Kids and Car Safety. Fennell said the death toll isn't improving ‒ the number of children who died in hot cars this year is about on par for what she's seen in recent years.

The deaths typically happen when a parent or caregiver has a change in routine, or parents miscommunicate with each other over who's in charge of taking the baby inside, and it isn't discovered until it's much too late. Fennell told USA TODAY on Friday that it's important to be aware of the danger, because a deadly mistake can be made by any parent at any time.

Sometimes, kids get into cars by themselves while parents think they are down for a nap or playing safely, and they become trapped.

And sometimes, a caregiver knows a child was still in the car and purposely leaves them there, perhaps thinking the child will be fine during a quick run into a store, Fennell said.

Hot cars are a huge threat to kids amid heat waves

An oppressive heat wave has been plaguing much of the South and Western United States in recent days and weeks, causing record-shattering temperatures. It's made it that much more deadly for children and others, like elderly people and pets, vulnerable to heat in cars.

Fennell said the biggest jump in temperature happens within the first 10 minutes after a car is shut off. That's why people should never run into a store or gas station and leave a child in the car, thinking it'll only take a minute.

"The truth is it's never just a minute," she said. "What if there's a long line? What if there's a technical difficulty with a pump? There's just no way that it's safe to do so."

HOW HOT DOES A PARKED CAR ACTUALLY GET?:In just 10 minutes, the heat can be 'miserable'

Parents should also be extra aware of keeping children out of hot cars amid the heat wave, Fennell said, because about 26% of hot car deaths happen when children get into cars on their own. At least three kids have died this year in similar circumstances, according to Kids and Car Safety's tracker. Earlier this month, a 2-year-old boy in Idaho was believed to be playing inside a hot car before he died, KMTV reported.

Fennell said people should make sure their keys aren't left somewhere accessible to young kids and car doors are locked. Even ask your neighbors to make sure their cars are locked up, she said.

"They're so curious... they don't understand the danger," she said. "It doesn’t take much for them to get in, and then they can't get out."

How you can avoid a hot car tragedy

Officials in Montgomery County, Texas, had hoped to increase awareness about the effects of hot cars with a demonstration earlier this month. Volunteers sat in cars with heart monitors hooked up. They tried to livestream the experience, but the phone they were using overheated and shut down within minutes, KHOU reported.

Here's what experts say you should do to prevent a tragic accident:

  • Place a visual reminder that your child is with you, such as a diaper bag, in the front seat.
  • Put an important item you need to start your day in the back seat, such as your cell phone, and make it a habit to always open the back door when you get out of the car.
  • Ask your childcare providers to call you if your child isn't dropped off as scheduled, because parents sometimes think they have dropped their child off and go to work, accidentally leaving them in their car seats all day.
  • Fennell also said a tip she likes to give is to keep a stuffed animal in your child's car seat at all times. When your child is put in the seat, the stuffed animal goes on the front passenger seat as a visual reminder

Kids and Car Safety is also hoping the federal government will write a new regulation mandating car manufacturers to include technology that can detect a living being left behind in a car and alert drivers. The technology is available and can prevent many deaths, Fennell said.

"It just really breaks my heart knowing that this has been available and that has not been placed in more vehicles already," she said.

Parents, caregivers charged in 2023 deaths

Police have charged parents and caregivers in several of the 14 hot-car deaths so far this year. It seems like the investigations and charges have come more quickly this year than in other years, Fennell said.

A grandfather in Alabama was charged with reckless murder in the nation's first recorded hot car death of a child in 2023 when he left his 2-year-old grandson in a car for several hours in February. A Florida pastor was charged in the May 28 death of her baby, who was left in a car during a church service. Most recently, babysitter Rhonda Jewell was charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child in the death of the baby in Macclenny, Florida.

The reality is that the deadly mistake of leaving a child in a hot car can happen to anyone, Fennell said. The same brain mechanism that causes someone to leave their cup of coffee on top of their car and drive away also causes someone to leave a child behind, she said. In many cases, a change in routine – like a parent who doesn't normally do daycare drop-off – and a brain operating on autopilot leads to the tragedy.

"Unfortunately for some reason our society tends to be so judgmental," Fennell said. "Nine times out of 10 it is absolutely unintentional, unknowing, and the most devastating thing that can ever happen to any family."

Six of the deaths this year have happened in Florida.

In one case police called a "horrible, tragic death," a couple left their 18-month-old girl unattended in a sizzling hot car after they returned from a July 4th party. They were charged in connection with death. Police blamed their negligence on alcohol and drug use that night.

HOT CARE DEATH PROSECUTIONS:Are poor, Black parents more likely to face charges when kids die in hot cars? One group is trying to find an answer

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