During the school year, I am responsible for dropping my youngest off at school. During the summer, all that changes when my husband, a teacher, is home and able to do all drop-offs and pickups. I love it. It means I can focus on just getting myself out the door and to work on time. I can take the short route to work that doesn’t go by the school. Sometimes I’m even able to stop to get a coffee on my drive in. The new routine works great until the day it doesn’t.
Just a few weeks into our new schedule, my husband had an early appointment and I was responsible for getting my son to camp. I woke him up, packed his bag, made his lunch, applied his sunscreen, got him in the car, started driving, and then promptly turned left towards work rather than right towards camp. We didn’t get too far before my little backseat driver noticed we were headed the wrong way and asked why we weren’t going towards camp. I turned around and got him to camp with plenty of time to spare.
People often wonder how parents could forget their kids in the car – let alone in the summer when we know cars get extremely hot. This is how. A change in routine. Obviously, at almost 8-years-old, my son is able to know where we are going and he is able to get himself out of the car if needed. However, what if he were an infant? What if he had fallen asleep in the back of the car and I kept driving to work, parked the car and got out? He could be in the backseat of that car until I got done with my workday. That is how it happens.
The Danger of Hot Cars
So far, in 2019, 13 children have died of heatstroke after being left in a hot car. 2018 had a record number of 52 deaths. These deaths occurred in almost every state. In more than half of the cases, a parent or caregiver forgot the child in the car. This happens across class lines and race lines. This happens to people of all professions. It happens to those who live in cities and those in more rural areas. It can happen to anyone.
Neuroscientists who study this phenomenon describe a dominance of habit memory over prospective memory. Prospective memory centers in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. It helps us create and plan a future task. For example, bringing my son to camp. Habit memory is centered in the basal ganglia and refers to tasks that are routine and automatic like my drive to work. Failure of prospective memory occurs almost daily but is exacerbated by times of stress, poor sleep or changes in routine.
Car companies, like GMC, Hyundai and Nissan have been working on technology that can alert parents to an occupant in the backseat. But this is not yet routinely available on all models. Lobbyists have also been working with Congress and recently introduced the Hot Cars Act of 2019. This legislation would require cars to have occupancy alarms. Even if the bill passes, we are likely several years away from seeing occupancy alarms standard in all car makes and models.
Until the technology catches up with the need, there are several things that parents can do to keep their child safe.
- Never leave your child alone in a car even for a minute.
- Place something you need in the backseat with your child. Consider leaving your work bag or purse, even your left shoe in the backseat. This will act as a reminder to check the backseat.
- Ask your daycare to call you if your child has not arrived by a certain time.
- Put your child’s diaper bag in the front seat as a reminder that there is a passenger in the back.
- Use a memory device.
- Fasten a slap bracelet to your child’s car seat. After placing the car seat in the car, put the bracelet on your wrist as a reminder that the car seat is in the back.
- Keep a stuffed animal in the car seat when it is empty. Move the animal to the front seat of the car as a reminder that the car seat is occupied.
- SOPHIE’S KISS (Keeping Infants Safe and Secure). These special reminder key chains are distributed by request from Safety Stop at St. Louis Children’s Hospital (314-454-KIDS). The key chains were created by loving parents who lost their beautiful baby, Sophie, after unintentionally leaving her in the backseat of the family car.
- Check the back seat every time you leave the car. Make it a routine. Make it a habit.