Fatal Distraction: Too Many Kids Lost Because We’re Being Safe


On Sunday, March 8, the Washington Post ran an article about children who died after being left in hot vehicles and the aftermath.  What happens to the families?  Are the parents who did the unthinkable prosecuted?  Do marriages survive?

I grew up in the Phoenix area so this topic is one with which I am not unfamiliar.  Every year as I was growing up we’d wait for the headlines to start with the tragedies that unfolded in our metro area: kids left to die in cars and drownings.  Such a happy place to live in the sweltering summers!  But we’re not here to focus on drowning, so let’s talk about the other.

Raise your hand if you’ve left your kid in the car.  There.  I did.  Both on purpose and accidentally.  My son was (is!) a high needs child and was especially fussy when he was a baby and toddler.  We still joke he hasn’t outgrown his colic 😉 .  But seriously, if he fell asleep in the van (ha!), heck, I left him there to finish his nap.  He was in our garage with the garage door closed.  I’d open his van door and prop open the door to the house and stay in the kitchen putting items away and was always within steps of him should he awaken or otherwise make a sound.  I remember once coming home from somewhere and being completely distracted by something that I can’t even remember now.  Either the phone was ringing in the house or I was busy putting groceries away or something-so important that I forgot my son was still in the van.  I putzed around the house for a few minutes then realized I was missing something.  Oops!  I was very lucky that it happened at home and not when I was out and about-we had limo tinting on the van and unless he was crying, no one would have known he was in the van.  I’ve also forgotten other things in the van, like the $21 in organic milk that rotted all day in the back of the van because I got busy thinking about other things, no doubt child passenger safety issues, on the direct route home.  Even SAHM/Ds with no life can be forgetful.  It can happen to anyone.

So let’s be honest: kids who are left in vehicles don’t just slip away into unconsciousness peacefully.  They bake to death like a chicken in an oven.  Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are terribly uncomfortable: I’ve had heat exhaustion several times and it’s scary, especially if you’re in a position where you know you can’t get cool.  The article gets more graphic about what happens with the skin of a child left in a hot vehicle all day so I don’t feel the need to do so (nor do I have the experience to talk about it, thank God).  The only reason I mention this is because it needs mentioning.  If people don’t know what happens, they’ll continue to not take it seriously and think it’s OK to leave their children in vehicles while they run inside the store for a few minutes to pick up a few bananas or a six-pack of Coke.  “Parents” have left their kids in cars to die while they gamble in casinos and have their hair and nails done in salons because they thought the vehicle was a better babysitter.  And for these people, I created a PSA after becoming so frustrated.

But getting back to the Washington Post article, we’ve created a society based on stress.  Our family support isn’t there for us typically: grandparents and siblings live in different areas of the country, so we as parents are left to fend for ourselves when it comes to childcare and parenting issues.  We struggle to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, then get the kids where they need to be so we can get to our jobs on time.  Many times these loving parents forget to drop their kids off at daycare because of a change in routine: there’s an extra person in the vehicle to drop off, a change in cars to drive, someone else is dropping the child off, leaving for work earlier, etc.  I’ve read stories where the parent got coffee, but drove right past the daycare because the daycare wasn’t open yet; they were both on the same route to work.  Just this morning, for example, I forgot to grab my wedding ring because I grabbed my water bottle for the gym instead.  The water bottle was in the same location as the ring was.  I usually only grab my ring.  In my mind, I grabbed one thing and that’s all I needed to do-I was good to go.  Granted I didn’t kill anyone by forgetting my ring so it’s not quite the same thing, but . . . it can happen to anyone.

In our attempt to save children, especially vulnerable rear-facing infants, from front seat airbags (which can AND do kill when they deploy into car seats), we’ve created a different problem for ourselves by hiding our children in the back seat.  In 1998, we finally figured out that airbags were killing our kids and that the back seat is the place to be.  The back seat is about 38% safer than the front seat.  We want our kids in the back seat.  It’s the safest place.  But how do we protect them against our frail memories that when taxed, blank out about those whom we cannot see and hear?

We can place reminders on the front passenger seat, like a teddy bear or a diaper bag.  We can put stickers on the front driver’s window that remind us to check the back seat.  We can leave purses, computer bags, wallets, and briefcases in the back seat so we’re forced to lean in back to retrieve those items.  There are monitors on the market, but I’ve tried one and it actually drove my kids and me so crazy that we nearly ripped it out of my daughter’s seat at a stoplight.  I think the best thing to do is if your child is expected at a daycare, arrange to have them call you or an alternate emergency number (spouse, friend, relative) if your child doesn’t show up that day.

Many of these good parents who lost their kids in the back seat of their vehicles are brought to trial and I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do.  Where was their intent?  They didn’t wake up that day with the intent to kill their child and ruin their lives.  They didn’t drive drunk or otherwise under the influence.  They were folks who somewhere along the line got caught up in their thoughts or stress or lack of sleep of parenting and paid the ultimate price.  They lost a child, many families have broken up-I just can’t imagine.  It can happen to anyone.


For more excellent information, tips, and up-to-date statistics, visit the Hyperthermia Deaths of Children in Vehicles web page.


  1. vonfirmath April 8, 2009
  2. vonfirmath April 6, 2009
  3. Kate April 5, 2009
  4. Bookmama April 5, 2009
  5. Kat_momof3 April 3, 2009
  6. Laura Bower April 2, 2009