Every year, especially in summer months, we hear about the tragic deaths of children left in hot cars who die from heatstroke. Despite considerable national media attention surrounding these preventable deaths, they continue to occur with a horrifying frequency. According to a database compiled by San Jose State University, 42 children died in this manner in 2017. Since 1998, 748 children have died due to vehicular heatstroke, which is an average of 37 deaths each year.1
Every single one of these deaths could have been prevented. But what exactly can be done to ensure this senseless loss of life never happens again?
How Does This Happen?
The first step in addressing the problem is to determine how this happens. Most people are dumbfounded when presented with the scenario: how can a parent forget their child is in the back seat? The answer is: it’s a lot easier than you think.
According to one neuroscientist who has studied the problem, this type of tragedy occurs when our “habit memory” system prevails over our “prospective memory” system.2 The habit memory system controls repetitive tasks that we do automatically, like driving from home to work. The prospective memory function oversees the planning and execution of actions for the future, like taking a child to day care.
Habit memory often overrides our prospective memory, as when we forget to stop at the store to get a gallon of milk on our way home from work.
In most cases of vehicular heatstroke, there are common factors: a change in the parent’s routine led the parent to follow an alternate but well-traveled route (a different parent than normal dropping off the child at daycare before work); a change in the parent-child interaction during the drive (the child falls asleep); and a lack of a cue (such as a sound from the child or a visible diaper bag).
Many parents also report a stressful or distracting event preceding the drive. And many report sleep deprivation.
Technology Can Help
Unlike seat belt and car seat laws, legislation would do nothing to prevent these deaths. As noted above, these cases are the tragic result of a single, simple act of forgetfulness. A law that punishes a parent or adult would only add insult to injury, and not prevent any of these cases.
Technology can offer some help. Automaker GMC has installed a device on all models of their Acadia car starting in 2017 that notifies the driver if a child is in the back seat. This seems like a reminder system that will work, but it is limited to only this model of cars.
But What Can A Parent Do?
Given what we know about how these events occur, there are some things that parents can do to prevent this horrible outcome.
- First, be aware of the possibility. There are several aftermarket products that can remind you to check for your child in the backseat. These products include a phone app, a small stuffed bear, and an “angel” that attaches to your seat belt, door handle, steering wheel or other part of the car as a visual reminder. However, these products are not big sellers because parents think that this would never happen to them, so they don’t feel the need to be proactive. Reading about how common this is and how normal, loving parents can forget about their children in the backseat is a wake-up call. It can happen to anyone. Any reminder you think might help is worth trying.
- Keep car doors locked at all times, even when the car is parked in your garage, driveway, or street. Some small children get into unlocked cars to play, and then get overcome by the heat or are unable to get themselves out, and die that way.
- Never leave your children in the car intentionally. Some parents may leave a sleeping child in the car so as not to disturb them. But this is never a good idea, even on cooler days. On study found that the rise in temperature of the interior of the car was not significantly different on a sunny day when the ambient temperature was 72° versus 96°.3 They also found that leaving the windows cracked open 1.5 inches did not reduce the temperature in the car, either.
- Put something in the backseat that you will need at your destination. A briefcase, purse, suit jacket, key card, ID badge, shoe, or other necessary item left in the backseat may force you to realize the child is still in the car.
- IF you are altering your routine (you, instead of your spouse, are dropping off the child at daycare), then leave a note on your driver’s side window, steering wheel, car keys, windshield, or inside door handle to remind you that the child is in the backseat.
- Though it won’t help immediately, send a letter to the car companies to encourage them to install technology in every car to remind drivers that there is a child in the backseat. We have this technology for seat belts and car keys in the ignition and when our lights are on: it should be mandatory to have this to protect our children.
- Write a letter to your legislators to ask that such technology be made mandatory. Again, we use this technology to save our car batteries—why don’t we have it to save our children?
- Heatstroke Deaths of Children in Vehicles. 2018.
- An epidemic of children dying in hot cars: a tragedy that can be prevented. 2016.
- McLaren C, Null J, Quinn J. Heat stress from enclosed vehicles: moderate ambient temperatures cause significant temperature rise in enclosed vehicles. Pediatrics. 2005 Jul;116 (1):e109-12.