Photo credit: David Aaron Troy/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images
Summer is here and it's hot outside in many parts of the country. It's really, really hot in some parts. Where I live, temperatures have risen to 110 degrees on several different days — and it's only going to get worse. Because of that, we're likely to hear more news about babies and toddlers being forgotten in locked vehicles. And in the stories that make headlines, the children almost always die.
How hot is too hot?
The reality is that it doesn't need to be 110 degrees outside for a child to die in a car. It doesn't need to be 100... or 90... or even 80. "Many people are shocked to learn how hot the inside of a car can actually get, says Tareka Wheeler, director of U.S. programs at Safe Kids Worldwide. "Even on a mild 70-degree day, the temperature inside of a car can rise 20 degrees in 10 minutes and keep getting hotter with each passing minute." It can quickly become much, much hotter in a vehicle than it is outside.
And remember that babies' and children's bodies respond to heat differently. “Hot temperatures in cars can be dangerous for anyone, but kids are especially susceptible to heatstroke because their bodies heat up three to five times faster than those of adults," Wheeler explains. "When a child's internal temperature reaches 104 degrees, major organs begin to shut down. A body temperature of 107 degrees can be fatal.”
The recent case does not represent the others
On June 18, 2014, Georgia resident George Harris claims he forgot his 22-month-old son in the back of his car. He says he drove his son to a fast food restaurant, but then somehow failed to remember to drop him off at daycare before driving to work — one mile away — exiting his car without his child, and leaving him there for the day. The toddler died from hyperthermia.
Despite the fact that police say Harris actually went out to his car at one point during the day and placed something in it via the passenger side door, Harris says he did not discover his deceased son in the vehicle until he was on the way home from work. He pulled over in a parking lot and frantically and unsuccessfully attempted to revive him in front of bystanders.
Police arrested Harris and charged him with murder and cruelty to children. Many people jumped to his defense, which felt like the right thing to do at the time because despite our easy judgment when parents legitimately forget their kids in the car, it is usually a very tragic accident. But new evidence and an updated arrest warrant leave many unanswered questions. Allegedly, Harris googled for information on how long animals can be left in the car before they die.
According to the New York Daily News article linked above, Cobb County Police Chief John Hauser made a statement: "I understand that tragic accidents similar to this one do occur and in most cases the parent simply made a mistake that cost them the life of their child... During the course of their investigation, detectives began to obtain physical evidence and testimonial evidence that (led) them to believe a more serious crime had been committed … The chain of events that occurred in this case does not point toward simple negligence and evidence will be presented to support this allegation."
But real accidents do happen
If the alleged facts in this case turn out to be true, it's unfortunate for many reasons, the most glaring that it would mean a father intentionally killed his son. But it also detracts from the reality of most true cases of a forgotten child: Good, competent parents who love their children and who would never intentionally hurt them forget their babies and toddlers in vehicles, and those babies and toddlers die.
I used to think that was ridiculous, that there's no way even a mediocre parent could legitimately "forget" his or her child in the car. It turns out that we have to understand how it happens to know that it can happen to anyone, including "good" parents.
A 2009 Washington Post article titled "Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?" helped me to understand how a parent can leave a child in a car to die by mistake. It's long, but I think it's worth reading and I always recommend it when talking about this topic. Interestingly, the author explains that kids weren't really forgotten in cars until the early 1990s, when safety experts determined that the backseat was the safest place for babies, toddlers and young children.
So having kids in the backseat makes it easier to forget them. That makes sense. But seriously, who actually forgets them long enough that they succumb to the heat and die? The answer is simple: Anyone. Like the article says:
The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.
Your brain on autopilot
Before I became a mom and experienced the absolute physical exhaustion that accompanies having a baby who cannot sleep, I thought I could handle anything. I used to joke that I got through law school averaging four hours of sleep a night. How could it get worse?
It turns out it can — for me, a baby who didn't sleep more than an hour at a time meant I was averaging less than four hours of sleep a night. The problem for me wasn't so much the amount, but the fact that it was constantly interrupted sleep.
I recall being so tired after getting to a doctor's appointment with my son one day that I suddenly understood those studies that talk about how driving exhausted is as bad as driving drunk. I had no recollection of the last two-plus miles of the drive. At one point, I was exhausted and doing my best to focus on the endless traffic on the freeway. And then suddenly, I was in the parking garage, wondering exactly how I got from the freeway — the last place I recalled driving — to my final destination.
The human brain is pretty neat and it compensates well, but it also makes mistakes. The author of the Washington Post article talked to David Diamond, a professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida. Diamond has done extensive research on the intersection of memory, emotion and stress. He explained to the author how the brain can begin to function on autopilot. There's a part of our brain called the basal ganglia that is primitive — it's almost identical to a lizard's brain. Sometimes, the higher and more sophisticated parts, the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, take a backseat to the lizard part. That's what allowed me to drive a few miles without actually realizing I was doing it.
According to the article, "Diamond says that in situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of auxiliary autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant but efficient basal ganglia is operating the car; that's why you'll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made or the scenery you saw."
Stressors can contribute to that autopilot part of your brain taking over. And the one thing most parents can agree on is that there are definite stressors during the first year or two of parenting a new baby.
How to avoid forgetting a child in the car
It goes without saying that no parent would ever want to forget their child in the car. Acknowledging that it could happen to any of us is a good start, because then we can take steps to prevent doing it. Last year, 43 children died after being forgotten in the car. It doesn't seem like that many... except to the parents who do it.
"Create reminders by putting something in the back of the car next to your child like a briefcase, a purse or cell phone that you'll need at your final destination," Wheeler suggests. "This is especially important if you're not following your normal routine."
There are also products on the market now to help remind you that your child is in the backseat.
^ ChildMinder SoftClip System
The ChildMinder SoftClip System ($80) is a two-part device. One part clips on the child's car seat and the other part attaches to the parent's key ring. If the two pieces are separated by more than 15 feet, the unit attached to the key ring beeps.
^ Kids n' Kars app
The new Kids n' Kars app alerts drivers to check their backseat before leaving their vehicle. The truth is that many of us don't even think about grabbing our cell phones — it's almost instinctive. So having an app on the phone that's always in our hand might serve as a great reminder.