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The heat inside your car can turn deadly in minutes this summer

By Stephanie Zimmermann

In a Sun-Times test, a parked car got dangerously hot in minutes, a reminder that leaving pets or children in a car, even briefly, can quickly turn deadly.

Inside temperature of a black 2015 Toyota Corolla
A temperature reader showing the inside temperature of a black 2015 Toyota Corolla, center, says it’s 114 degrees while the weather outside is 88 degrees. Stephanie Zimmermann/Sun-Times

If you thought you could safely leave your kid or dog in the car and dash into a store, you’d be wrong.

A Sun-Times test this month — before the recent heat wave hit — found the inside temperature of a parked car in a sunny spot rocketed to dangerous levels in minutes.

For a baby or child, that could spell death, as has happened to at least 21 kids in Illinois since 1990.

The black 2015 Toyota Corolla we tested June 13 on a residential street in Irving Park reached 103.1 degrees in 15 minutes and 114.1 degrees in 45 minutes, according to a sensor placed inside the car out of direct sunlight.

On the day of the test, the outdoor temperature was 88 degrees with a nice breeze and low humidity — a comfortable Chicago day.

The rate at which the temperature rose was fastest within the first 10 minutes, consistent with other tests around the country.

Temperatures quickly get dangerously high in parked cars

Before this week's heat wave arrived, a Sun-times test showed just how hot the inside of a parked car can get - even on a comfortable day. 

A reporter cooled the inside of a black Toyota Corolla on a breezy, 88‑degree day earlier this month and parked it in a sunny spot on the street in Irving Park. She turned off the car and got out at 11 a.m., leaving the tinted windows rolled up. Here's what happened next.

Temperatures quickly get dangerously high in parked cars

That doesn’t surprise Janette Fennell, founder of the nonprofit Kids and Car Safety, which has tracked hot vehicle deaths for years and is pushing automakers to add more technology to prevent them.

Fennell has logged hot car deaths on sunny days when temps were in the 60s.

She said cracking open the windows doesn’t stop a car from reaching and remaining at deadly-high temperatures.

“The car acts like a greenhouse,” Fennell said.

Since 1990, at least 1,085 children have died in hot vehicles, according to her group, including 29 last year. Thousands more have been seriously injured.

Tragedy in Indiana

Heatstroke can start when the body reaches a core temperature of 104 degrees. Death can occur at 107 degrees. Because a child’s body temperature rises three to five times faster than an adult’s, a hot car can quickly become dangerous.

Dogs left in cars face the same risk; their only way to cool down is through sweat glands on their paws or by panting.

Jamie Dill’s 3-year-old son Oliver died in July 2019 after her husband, Andrew, accidentally left their son in the car.

The Evansville, Indiana, family’s tragedy is a familiar story to safety advocates.

Oliver Dill
Oliver Dill. Provided

Jamie Dill said the family of four was planning to see “Toy Story 4” at a movie theater that afternoon and they were also packing to go on vacation two days later.

Andrew Dill was to take Oliver, their youngest, to daycare on his way to work, a change in the family’s normal routine.

When he arrived at his job at the University of Southern Indiana, he walked inside but forgot to bring Oliver with him to the university’s daycare.

He didn’t realize what happened until he returned to the parking lot after work. To his horror, Oliver was still in the car, dead from hyperthermia.

Since then, the Dills have channeled their grief into working with other bereaved people impacted by similar deaths and educating their community about the dangers of hot cars.

“My motivation is really Ollie,” Jamie Dill said. “I just want to do something to honor him and to save other families from going through the heartbreak that we have.”

Jamie Dill holds a photo of her son, Oliver, in a family portrait with her husband, Andrew, and their older son.
The Dill family with Jamie, left, holding a photo of their son Oliver. Provided. 

Tech solutions

Those who’ve studied hot car deaths said parents who are stressed or have a lot on their minds can zone out while driving, arriving at their destination with no memory that their child is still in the car.

The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 set a November 2023 deadline for a new federal rule mandating preventative technology, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is still trying to decide what will be required.

An analysis performed for NHTSA in March 2023 evaluated a variety of options from original manufacturer’s equipment to aftermarket items like car seat sensors and cameras.

The automotive industry has already voluntarily agreed to install rear seat reminder systems in all new cars by 2025.

Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an industry group, said more than 215 new vehicle models already offer some type of warning system.

But Fennell, of Kids and Car Safety, and Michael Brooks, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said most of those innovations don’t go far enough.

“The technology is never perfect because it’s trying to capture human behavior, which is all over the place,” Brooks said.

Basic reminder systems alert drivers to check the rear seats when they turn off and get out of the car. A more advanced version is a “door sequencing logic” system in which the car’s computer notes whether someone opened the back door at the start of a trip then reopened the back door at the end of the trip. It can alert a driver with a warning sound.

Safety advocates say those chimes and dings can become background noise over time, reducing their effectiveness. And if a driver loads a baby and an older child in the back seat and drops the older child off first, for example, or loads a baby then turns off the car and runs back inside their home to grab their coffee, the door logic system wouldn’t understand what happened and may fail to sound alerts.

Fennell said at least six children have died in hot cars with that technology.

A better solution, safety advocates said, is high-frequency radar that is sensitive enough to detect the breaths of a sleeping baby. A NHTSA analysis said radar technology would cost about $20 per vehicle.

Meanwhile, drivers can try a no-tech trick: Place an important item, such as a purse, cellphone, computer bag or work ID badge on the back seat next to the child’s car seat.

Parents should also instruct their daycare provider to call all the emergency contacts if the child does not arrive.

Jamie Dill urged parents to take those steps while hoping that better technology will eventually become commonplace.

“It’s frustrating, especially when you see in the news that another child has passed in a car,” she said. “And you think, how long is this going to take?”

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