Today is National Heatstroke Prevention Day. It started 6 years ago to bring attention to children dying in hot cars. With every instance of a child left alone to die in a hot vehicle, we’re shocked, saddened, angered, and left wondering how a “good” parent could possibly forget their child. Many armchair parents are quick to comment about how they’d never forget a living, breathing child in a car while experts plead again to take steps so that it doesn’t happen again. This is a relatively new phenomena since frontal passenger airbags moved rear-facing children to the back seat; however, children have been dying in hot cars for much longer than that.
In the first 10 minutes a vehicle has been sitting in the sun, the temperature inside rises about 19°. After 20 minutes, it has risen about 29°. Before long, the inside temperature can be well above 140° depending on the outside air temperature. Cracking a window doesn’t matter: the sun’s rays heat the interior fixtures of the vehicle: the dash, steering wheel, seats, etc., which cause the air molecules to heat up. It’s science we all learned in grade school but have probably long forgotten. Hyperthermia, or high body temperature, occurs when the body’s temperature goes over 104°. A temperature over 107° can be deadly and it happens very quickly with children, whose bodies heat up faster than adults’.
So far this year, 24 children have died in hot vehicles. While we don’t have specifics for this year, historically 54% were forgotten and 26.3% got into an unlocked car and couldn’t get back out. The numbers trend upward with 2018 being the deadliest year, but there’s no rhyme or reason to each year’s count. Two things are certain: heatstroke deaths rise during the warmer months—though to be sure, deaths do happen during cooler months—and parents are distracted to the point where their brains forget there’s a child in the car.
Have you ever forgotten to take a daily pill? What about grabbing your lunch or drink on your way out the door? Have you set your phone down, walked out of the room, then forgotten where you put the darn thing? (No? Must be an age thing. Just wait—it’ll happen!) Perhaps you’ve gotten home from running several errands and left the bags in the car. If you have done any of these things, then you are not immune to forgetting a child in the back seat of a car. You can be as high and mighty as you want, but the same brain processes that go into remembering these routine daily things are the same processes that go into remembering the child in your back seat. And if you have a child, you probably have some level of sleep deprivation to add in as well.
Try this the next time you drive a routine route: pay attention. Pay attention for the entire drive of that routine route. Do you remember driving past that stop sign? How about making the 2 turns? I will fully admit that sometimes as I drive routine routes—from the store, for instance—I look, but I am not seeing. As I drive I make sure there are no obstacles in front of me or vehicles coming at me, but I don’t remember how I got from point A to point B. And this is how children get forgotten.
Read this Pulitzer Prize-winning article: Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime? It’s long but it’s well-worth the read and will give you understanding into what happens when someone forgets a child in the back seat. As University of South Florida professor of psychology David Diamond explains, “Forgotten Baby Syndrome” is a real thing and it has to do with the way our brain memory systems interact. He offers 2 situations and explains how brain structures interact:
Condition 1: Parent 2, who may not normally take child to daycare, is tasked with daycare drop-off duties. The basal ganglia (the habit- or repetitive-based memory system—the one which allows us to remember how to tie a shoe or braid hair) suppresses the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, which are the decision-making and multi-tasking systems that work together to make new memories. The hippocampus analyzes the situation for new information and the prefrontal cortex takes information and allows us to make new plans (e.g., need to swing by the daycare and drop off the baby). Since the habit-based memory system is in control (brain: must get to work), the parent is in auto-pilot mode and forgets there’s a child in the back seat.
Condition 2: Parent is under stress and forgets child in the back seat. In this instance, the amygdala (consider this “emotional” memory) activates under high pressure conditions which causes interference with the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex (see how we need the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex to make new memories?). When the parent is thinking about an extraordinarily busy day or errands they need to run before work, or they receive a phone call, etc., that may be enough to stress the amygdala. Further, sleep deprivation may cause the basal ganglia to go into overdrive and make habit-based memories, such as driving to work and forgetting there’s a child in the back seat, come through.
There are ways to make sure children aren’t forgotten in back seats; you can get around your brain’s dysfunctions. It’s by setting up layers of protection so that if you do forget, you can be reminded.
- If your child is missing, check your pool first, then your vehicle (including the trunk!) – check neighbor’s pools and vehicles second
- Arrange to have your childcare provider contact you when your child doesn’t show up that day. Make sure they have multiple contact numbers to call/text and that they keep calling until they reach a live person.
- Keep all vehicles LOCKED at all times, even when they are in the garage and keep your keys/key fobs out of reach
- Keep your wallet AND cell phone in the back seat when you are driving
- Another option, put one shoe in the back seat when you are driving—you’re not going to walk away from your vehicle without your other shoe!
- Make it a habit to always look in the back seat when getting out of the car
- Teach your children that it’s NEVER okay to play in the car or to go into the car to get something without a grown-up
- Teach your children NEVER to hide in the car or inside the trunk
- However, also teach your children to blow the horn repeatedly to attract attention if they are ever trapped inside a vehicle
- Use available technology: Some Evenflo carseats, the Cybex Sirona M, and the Baby Trend Secure Snap Fit have technology available to let you know if your child has been left in the carseat. Some vehicles also have backseat reminders, and Hyundai has a rear seat sensor system in some 2019 model year vehicles. Other vehicles, like Teslas, have air conditioners that will automatically come on if the interior temperature reaches 105° and they can be set to stay on after the vehicle is parked (Tesla states not to leave children unattended in their vehicles).
Let’s make it clear that cars aren’t babysitters: children shouldn’t be left in them to nap for any amount of time unattended and they shouldn’t be allowed to play in them either. Kids can get trapped too easily in vehicles or can put a vehicle in gear and a tragedy can happen in a split second. This goes for pets too!
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If you’d like to read more, here are some links:
Ray Ray’s Story
Safe Kids Heatstroke Page
Kids and Cars Heatstroke Page
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Heatstroke Page