Objective. Each year, children die from heat stroke after being left unattended in motor vehicles. In 2003, the total was 42, up from a national average of 29 for the past 5 years. Previous studies found that on days when ambient temperatures exceeded 86°F, the internal temperatures of the vehicle quickly reached 134 to 154°F. We were interested to know whether similarly high temperatures occurred on clear sunny days with more moderate temperatures. The objective of this study was to evaluate the degree of temperature rise and rate of rise in similar and lower ambient temperatures. In addition, we evaluated the effect of having windows “cracked” open.

Methods. In this observational study, temperature rise was measured continuously over a 60-minute period in a dark sedan on 16 different clear sunny days with ambient temperatures ranging from 72 to 96°F. On 2 of these days, additional measurements were made with the windows opened 1.5 inches. Analysis of variance was used to compare how quickly the internal vehicle temperature rose and to compare temperature rise when windows were cracked open 1.5 inches.

Results. Regardless of the outside ambient temperature, the rate of temperature rise inside the vehicle was not significantly different. The average mean increase was 3.2°F per 5-minute interval, with 80% of the temperature rise occurring during the first 30 minutes. The final temperature of the vehicle depended on the starting ambient temperature, but even at the coolest ambient temperature, internal temperatures reached 117°F. On average, there was an ∼40°F increase in internal temperature for ambient temperatures spanning 72 to 96°F. Cracking windows open did not decrease the rate of temperature rise in the vehicle (closed: 3.4°F per 5 minutes; opened: 3.1°F per 5 minutes or the final maximum internal temperature.

Conclusions. Even at relatively cool ambient temperatures, the temperature rise in vehicles is significant on clear, sunny days and puts infants at risk for hyperthermia. Vehicles heat up rapidly, with the majority of the temperature rise occurring within the first 15 to 30 minutes. Leaving the windows opened slightly does not significantly slow the heating process or decrease the maximum temperature attained. Increased public awareness and parental education of heat rise in motor vehicles may reduce the incidence of hyperthermia death and improve child passenger safety.

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