It can happen to anyone. Any parent. Any child. One momentary instance of forgetfulness becomes the thing that splits your life down the middle… the before, and the after. The brutal reckoning of despair after; the, interminable string of sleepless nights after, left with nothing but the company of tangled sheets and the screeching of 2 AM nighthawks flying “what if” circles above your bed — what if I’d dropped her off at daycare instead of driving straight to work on autopilot; what if I’d left my phone beside her car seat as a reminder; what if…
Parents of children who died in hot cars are often demonized. “How could anyone really be so careless,” we ask. But this attitude of ridicule falls far off the mark of being helpful. It’s a myth we peddle to ourselves so that we don’t have to engage with the notion that, yes, it really could happen to any one of us. Indeed, criticizing these parents — those who’ve just suffered the worst day of their lives — neglects the reality of human fallibility: we are all capable of forgetting our children in the backseat of our cars. Our brains, naturally, are wired for the occasional failure.
An illuminating article from Consumer Reports highlights the science at play when parents forget their children. The reality is that it is a matter of circumstance. Perhaps the power went out in the middle of the night, and the alarm was reset, making everyone late to rise. Or maybe it’s usually one parent’s job to drive the child to daycare, and when it falls to the other parent for whatever reason, autopilot kicks in and they forget, instead driving straight to work. No one wakes up in the morning intending to forget their child in their car.
When she spoke to Consumer reports, Jane Fennel — founder and president of KidsAndCars.org — had this to say: “The worst thing any parent or caregiver can ever do is to think that something like this could never happen to them or someone in their family.”
“Parents suffer from exhaustion due to lack of sleep, stress and changes in their normal routine,” reads Look Before You Lock, a safety checklist we found on KidsAndCars. “Any one of these can cause your memory to fail at a time when you least expect it. Even the best of parents or caregivers can overlook a sleeping baby in a car; and the end result can be injury or even death.”
Acknowledging our uniquely human capacity to make mistakes is the first step to a solution. Those who recognize that a hot car death is something that could happen to their children are more likely to take precautionary measures, such as the following:
|MAKE SURE YOUR CHILD IS NEVER LEFT ALONE IN A CAR|
|☑ Make a habit of opening the back door every time you park to ensure no one is left behind.|
|☑ To enforce this habit, place an item that you can’t start your day without in the back seat (employee badge, laptop, phone, handbag, etc.)|
|☑ Clearly announce and confirm who is getting each child out of the vehicle. Miscommunication can lead to everyone thinking someone else removed the child.|
|☑ Ask your childcare provider to call you right away if your child hasn’t arrived as scheduled.|
|MAKE SURE CHILDREN CANNOT GET INTO A PARKED CAR|
|☑ Keep vehicles locked at all times, especially in the garage or driveway. Ask neighbors and visitors to do the same|
|☑ Never leave car keys within reach of children.|
|☑ If a child is missing, immediately check the inside, floorboards and trunk of all vehicles in the area very carefully.|
|☑ Teach children to honk the horn if they become stuck inside a car.|
A record 52 children died in hot cars last year, their ages ranging from 7 weeks to 11 years old. On average, 38 kids die after being left in hot cars, but the 2018 jump shows an alarming trend. In an effort to reduce the number of deaths to zero, parents who’ve made fatal mistakes of their own are pushing car companies to make certain safety features mandatory — technology that recognizes movement in the car after its been locked, or notifies parents if a rear passenger door was opened prior to a trip, then not opened again upon arrival.
Some car companies have already started investing in these technologies, and a few car seat manufacturers have done so as well. Technologies like these have proven to be effective in saving the lives of a number of children whose well-intentioned parents simply forgot.
But it’s not just children who are at risk of hot car deaths — there’s also pets and the elderly. Even if it is only 70 degrees outside, a vehicle’s temperature can rise upwards of 125 — hot enough to be painful on the skin of your average adult, even if they’re able to withstand it for a short while. Pets and the elderly don’t have the ability to cope with heat like that. And don’t think cracking a window will help. It might let some “cooler” air in, but not enough to drop the temperature below life-threatening levels.
The hotter it is outside, the more oven-like a car becomes. This is, in part, why the largest number of hot car deaths take place in the warmest part of our country: Florida, Texas, and California. So, just how hot can a car get?
Hot enough to bake cookies.
We should all make a pledge, as mothers, fathers, and caregivers of all kinds, to make sure we look before we lock. Don’t think it can’t happen to you.
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Check Out These References for Further Reading:
“Research Shows That Anyone Could Forget Kids in Hot Cars.” Consumer Reports. Retrieved 12 July 2019.
“Heatstroke.” KidsAndCars.org. Retrieved 12 July 2019.
“Hot Car Deaths.” National Safety Council. Retrieved 12 July 2019.
“The Big Number: 52 children left in hot vehicles died in 2018.” The Washington Post. Retrieved 12 July 2019.