Hot Car Hazards -- When Forgetfulness Can Be Fatal

by Laura Sussely-Pope

Hot Car HazardsOn August 7, 2012 in the Nashville area, a 5-month-old baby died inside his family's minivan. The mom, an attorney who specializes in veteran's issues, meant to take her son to daycare center after dropping a sibling off at the nearby middle school. She forgot. When it was time to pick the baby up, she got into the car and drove to the childcare center.

In the first week of August 2012, eight children in the United States died from heatstroke in hot cars, according to the advocacy group Kids and Cars. Nearly 40 children die this way every year.

Who Could Forget Their Child?

What kind of person forgets a baby in a car? It doesn't matter what socio-economic class you're in, your age, ethnicity or what job you hold. It doesn't matter if you're well-organized or absent-minded. People will forget.

It did happen to my friend. She dropped one child off at soccer and another at a play date. Her dad was in the hospital. She pulled into my driveway, grabbed her purse and knocked on the door.

I asked, "Where's that sweet babe?" She gasped, "Oh, my gosh! I left her in the car seat!"

On that day, this otherwise loving and attentive mom was distracted.

A San Francisco University report spanning 12 years and 424 heat-related deaths of children revealed that slightly more than half occurred because the parent simply forgot the child was in the car.

Bewildering memory failure doesn't cause all cases of hyperthermia in cars. Sometimes there's a history of prior neglect or substance abuse. A parent may choose to leave the child locked in a car, knowing the dangers and consequences.

Most of the time it's a tragic accident. Families find their lives ripped apart. Children lose their brother or sister. Mom and dad might be charged with manslaughter. Are these parents villains? The media sometimes calls them horrible, irresponsible and criminal. In reality, they're people who suffered a lapse of memory.

What Makes Parents Distracted?

When death by hyperthermia happens to young children, the facts about these cases are similar. One day, a parent gets busy, distracted, upset or confused by a change in the daily routine. They just forget a child is in the car.

"They go about their normal day not realizing the baby is still in the back seat," Jeanne Cosgrove, the Sunrise Children's Hospital coordinator for the Safe Kids Coalition in Las Vegas says.

Rear-facing car seats could also be a contributing factor to the rise in deaths. In the 1990s, experts pushed out a campaign to move kids into rear-facing seats. The number of children who died in hot cars spiked.

Increasing Your Awareness

Our lives are hectic. We drive around on auto-pilot, working out what's for dinner, making a chore list or organizing schedules. We're neck-deep in information overload. Important facts can fall through our memory's cracks like, 'the baby's sleeping in the car seat.'

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration urges parents to ask themselves, "Where's baby? Look before you lock," as part of its national campaign to address the hot car hazards. They recommend to:

• Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle. Cars overheat quickly even if the windows are partially open or the air-conditioning is on.

• Make a habit of looking in the vehicle front and back before locking the door and leaving.

• Ask your childcare provider to call if your child doesn't show up when expected.

• Put your "stuff" in the back seat with your child. Write a note to remind you that a child's in the car seat.

My friend who has a large family does a kid count each time she gets into or out of the van. She says, "Whatever trick you need to personally employ to implement your own "kid count" before getting out and locking your vehicle do so. It might irritate or amuse your family, but it will help keep your kids safe."

Do you have a routine to share with your fellow readers?

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.