Temperatures are on the rise, and soon the reports of children left in hot cars will be on the rise, too. I have a lot to say about that, but first I want to share a couple stories.
Sometimes when we’re cleaning up after dinner, my husband will take out the trash. He’ll announce to me that he has removed the trash bag from the garbage can so that I’ll know not to throw anything in there until he has come back inside and replaced it with a new bag.
I’ll hear him and acknowledge him. And then, almost inevitably, I’ll go over to the empty garbage can and throw something in.
I’m not stupid and I’m not trying to be a jerk. It’s not that I didn’t hear him. It’s that when I have something to throw away, my instinct is to do what I always do: Throw it away.
Then there was this one time in college when my friend and I were planning a drive to Arizona for spring break. I had been looking forward to it for months, and it was an easy drive I’d made before: Get onto I-10 (just down the street from my school) and head east for about six hours.
So when the morning of our trip arrived, my friend and I packed up my car and we headed out. Ten minutes later, my friend said, “Um…aren’t we going the wrong way?” Indeed we were. Instead of heading east to Phoenix, we were headed west toward Los Angeles. Why? Because that’s the route I took to drive home every week or two. It’s what I was used to, so it’s what I did without thinking about it, even though I knew to head east to Arizona.
What do trash cans and roadtrip detours have to do with heatstroke? A heck of a lot.
There are caregivers who intentionally leave their children in a hot car, usually because they don’t realize the danger. Sometimes these parents are downright negligent, like when they leave a child to go gambling. That happens in less than 20% of cases, though. Usually when we hear about children dying in hot cars, it’s a tragic instance of the parent forgetting the child was there. Most often that happens when there’s a change in routine.
It’s very easy for people to claim they would never be those parents. They love their children too much to forget them. They are too smart to let something like that happen.
If you think it can’t happen to you, you’re wrong. It can happen to anyone, including very intelligent, diligent, loving, caring parents who are just as human as the rest of us. They don’t forget their children because they don’t love them or don’t care. They forget their children because humans are wired to follow routines. We’re creatures of habit, and habits are hard to break.
When I throw some food scraps into a liner-less trash can or head the wrong way on the freeway, it’s because that’s what I’m used to doing, despite “knowing” I’m supposed to do something different.
It’s the same with the parent whose morning routine usually involves driving straight to the office. That’s what they do and what they’ve done, maybe every weekday for months or years. Then one morning, something changes. Maybe the parent who usually takes the baby to daycare is sick, so the other parent needs to drop him off. The parent knows this, of course. He or she packs up the diaper bag and straps the baby into the car seat. Maybe he or she talks or sings to the baby as the drive starts. But then the baby falls asleep and the parent focuses on driving. And then the routine takes over. The parent goes on autopilot—like we all do, more often than we realize—and he or she instinctively makes the right toward the office instead of the left toward the daycare. And then tragedy strikes.
You can say it’ll never happen to you, but the truth is that it can happen to anyone. I guarantee that every person reading this has had one of “those” moments, where they fully intend to do one thing but then do another out of habit. Usually those moments are nothing more than a slight inconvenience; usually they don’t have dire consequences.
If you’re still feeling smug about being a superior parent, read this piece from the Washington Post, and try to do it without crying.
Over the past few years, as the media has paid more attention to the issue of children dying in hot cars, several inventions have emerged to try to prevent the tragedy from happening. There have been a couple car seats, including the Evenflo Advanced Embrace with SensorSafe, designed with technology built in to remind parents a child is with them. GMC has introduced an alarm that sounds when it senses a child might be in the back seat (due to a back door having been opened and shut before the drive started). Aftermarket chest clips and mats have been created, and people have marketed gadgets like a device that blocks a driver’s exit from the car to remind them that their child is in the back.
Some of these products are more reliable than others. Electronic technology can fail (though Evenflo’s system seems to be more reliable than many other methods). Some (like thick mats or non-approved chest clips) could potentially be dangerous.
The good news is that you don’t need technology or fancy gadgets to help prevent these tragedies, but you should do something. If you have your child in the car—especially if that’s out of the ordinary—put your purse or briefcase in the back seat (preferably on the floor so it’s less likely to fly around). If you don’t use a purse or briefcase, put some other item back there that you’ll need once you get to your destination: Your phone (that will also cut down on the temptation to use it while driving), your coat, one of your shoes.
Talk with your preschool or daycare about procedures for when a child doesn’t show up: Do they call to try to locate the child? If not, see if they will. If your spouse or another person usually handles drop-off, keep in touch with them, too, if possible. If Dad is changing his routine to drop off the kids, Mom can call him around drop-off time to make sure he made it. You and your childcare provider can take Ray Ray’s Pledge.
Don’t intentionally leave children in the car, even if you’re just running into the store for five minutes. In that time, the car could already be heating up to deadly levels. Always keep your parked vehicle locked – even if it’s in your garage. Kids die every year because they get into open cars or trunks and then can’t get out.
If you see a child left alone in a car, immediately call 911. Do not wait for the parent to return because chances are you have no idea how long the child has been in the car already. If the child appears to be in distress, check for unlocked doors or break a window (away from the child) if you need to.
And as you encounter stories of babies accidentally left in cars, take a moment to have some compassion instead of judgement. Everybody makes mistakes. Be thankful if yours aren’t fatal ones.