Every year we hear about it on the news, the tragedy of a young child being left in a car and ending up in hot car deaths.
Remember even on a 70 degree day the inside of the car can get up to 125 degrees. Young children are particularly at risk, as their bodies heat up three to five times faster than an adult’s. Hot car deaths are always sad. And for the most part they are avoidable.
Why does it happen? Often times when you hear people talking about it. A lot of us are quick to judge, “how could a parent leave a child unattended in the car?” or “how could they forget about their child?” or “what kind of parent does that?”
A mom wrote an article for us last year sharing her story about how her daughter was found in a hot car when the mom thought she was at the neighbors house playing. You can read that powerfully moving article called Heat Stroke: It could not happen to us…… here.
Imagine going through that as a parent.
According to SafeKids Worldwide about 30% of hot car deaths are cases when the child managed to get into the car alone.
Other times a parent actually forgets the child in the car (about 52% of the cases of child heatstroke deaths in cars). They are driving some where and they forget about the child and go about their day. We ask how can that happen?
A lot of people think this only happens with “bad” parents, also frequently called “monsters”. And that is simply not true.
Janette Fennell, founder of KidsAndCars.org which tracks hot car deaths, says perhaps 90% of the time, the parent is the type to put latches on their doors and padding around the coffee table. She has met college professors, lawyers and ministers who have done it. “Only a small percentage,” she said, “have drug problems or have had interactions with child protective services.” Even if that parent only walked two steps away from the car then remembered, they forgot… for that second.
“Our short term memory is limited and fragile. If you can forget to forget to pick up your keys or buy milk, you can forget your child – in a moment your brain is not making a decision on how important the object is,” said Matthew Mundy, Associate Professor at Monash Institute of Cognitive and Neuro Sciences.
When you look at the extenuating circumstances, it’s often that there was change in routine. For example, mom normally drops the child off at daycare and today she asks if dad can drop the child off on his way to work instead. It’s out of the ordinary for dad; it’s not in his routine. His mind is on autopilot. That can happen to anybody, anytime.
Or all parents?
Even the most vigilant parents have been known to forget babies in the car, especially new parents and sleeping babies.
Who can it happen to? Anyone.
• New parents who are exhausted and forming new routines
• Parents who are doing something out of routine
• Over stressed parents (and which of us aren’t?)
I remember when I was a new dad about 13 years ago. I took the baby when he was about a month old and drove to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Go in. Grab a ticket. Sit down. I’m waiting to go up to the counter when… AGH!! I realize my newborn son came with me but left him out in the car.
Fortunately it had only been a couple of minutes and we were here in Colorado on a cool spring day and he was fine. But it could have been worse.
Then I was faced with the question, do I just leave or do I go get him and face the ridicule of, “well, where did that kid come from? That guy was sitting in here before without a kid with him.”
My point in sharing that is, it can happen to anybody. At the time I was a firefighter/paramedic; Mr. Safety, a Child Passenger Safety Instructor. It can happen to anybody.
“The worst thing any parent or caregiver can do is think that they could never unknowingly leave a child behind in a vehicle,” said Amber Rollins Director of KidsAndCars.org.
A few years back there was an article in Parents magazine that really brings it home with real stories of parents who forgot about their child in the car. Read it. Or the story of Raelyn Balfour. “I was one of those parents that said that it can never happen to me,” she said, describing the day she lost her son in a hot car at her place of work in 2007.
Let’s look at ways you can put the odds in your favor. If it’s going to be a change of schedule, anticipate it can happen — even to you.
Safe Kids Worldwide suggests the remembering to ACT to reduce the number of deaths from heatstroke.
Avoid heatstroke-related injury and death by never leaving your child alone in a car, not even for a minute. And make sure to keep your car locked when you’re not in it so kids don’t get in on their own.
C: Create reminders.
This is especially important if you’re not following your normal routine.
- Bring one of the kids’ toys and put it on the dash as a reminder.
- Keep a stuffed animal in your child’s car seat, when your child is in the seat, put the animal on the passenger seat to remind you.
- Put your purse or briefcase or phone in the back seat next to the car seat so you have to open the back door to get what you need when you get to your destination. (Bonus: If you put your phone back there, it will help avoid distracted driving as well.)
- Have your babysitter or day care call you, if your child hasn’t arrived on time.
- Put a sticker on your door handle or steering wheel
- Set a reminder on your phone
- Make it a habit to open the back door to check, even when you know no one is back there
- Use a phone app (Waze has a child reminder) or other gadgets to help you remember.
- Clever Elly is a two-in-one reminder device to check the back seat plus USB charger.
- Cybex has Sensor Safe™ Technology on some of their car seats which includes a sensor in the chest clip and a receiver that installs in the car to alert the driver when unsafe conditions arise, like child left alone or chest clip is open.
T: Take action.
- If you see a child locked in car, call 911. Emergency personnel want you to call. They are trained to respond to these situations. One call could save a life.
- If the threat is imminent and you want to take matters into your own hands, you should know 24 states have laws that give immunity to a person rescuing a child from a hot car, sometimes called a “good Samaritan” law. Those states are (as of 10/10/20):
- California (effective 1/1/21),
- New Jersey,
- Rhode Island,
- South Dakota,
- West Virginia and
- In case you are in a situation where you need to help, you can carry a Resqme tool with you to help you break open a window
One more time
Remember, it can happen to anyone.
Do not think that your immune from it. Take steps to remind yourself because we all get busy, we all have routines and we all go into autopilot. Think about the last time you drove to work. How much of the drive do you actually remember?
Hot car deaths happen on average about 38 times a year. Last year we had a high number of 52 children die in hot cars. And this year we’ve already had 19!
On average we lose about 400 children aged birth to 4 on the highways every year. So yes hot car deaths are tragic. And if we look at the big picture, car crashes are still the number one cause of fatality. And at Safe Ride 4 Kids we’re passionate about protecting kids even before they are born by protecting the pregnancy with the Tummy Shield.
These things we drive around in every day, we believe they are safe — and they are a lot safer than they used to be — but at the end of the day this is a big piece of equipment. It’s the most risky thing that we engage in on a daily basis and that we expose our children to.
Pay attention. Realize it can happen to anyone. Put the odds in your favor.
We want to know, have you ever — even for a second — forgotten your child in the car? Share your comments below.
By Greg Durocher, CEO at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Technician Instructor since 2002
Copyright 2019 Safe Ride 4 Kids. All rights reserved. You may not publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material without permission. You are welcome to link to Safe Ride 4 Kids or share on social media.
We originally published this post in June 2016. We updated the article for accuracy and comprehensiveness.