Is it Possible to Leave a Child in a Hot Car “by Accident”?
On July 1st in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, deputies found a two year-old boy locked in a hot car, buckled to his car seat. The boy had vomited on his clothes and was sweating heavily.
The officers brought the boy to the store, where EMS workers found no need to give him medical attention. The boy’s mother and relative who left him in the car were arrested, and the child was given to his father.
As harrowing as this story sounds, it ended well. There are dozens of children who succumb to the extreme heat of hot car interiors every year. Pets die off as a result of this as well.
When these tragic stories emerge, there’s a tendency for viewers to label the parents and drivers as negligent, even criminal. But what is the likelihood of leaving a pet or child in a hot car by accident? How does that precious life slip your mind?
Mistake or Crime?
In some instances, it’s clear that an individual was clearly negligent or malicious. You listen to the police reports, and you hear chilling descriptions of the person’s nonchalant reaction to their arrest, or disturbing details regarding their internet activity.
But how do we respond when someone insists leaving their child (or pet) in a hot car was accidental? Usually, we roll our eyes and fire back, declaring how no loving person could possibly forget their kids or pets in a roasting backseat.
However, science shows that it is indeed possible to forget your child or pet in the car depending on one’s circumstances.
To Err is Human
When a person forgets their child or pet in a vehicle, two factors tend to come in play. They’re both cultural and biological. As a result, when people forget their kids or dogs in the backseat, they’re almost always flabbergasted as to how they could even make such a mistake.
But here’s what’s happening…
A Cultural Shift
Many of you remember the days when babies rode in the front seat (of course, in their car seats), particularly the years before the early 90s. However, when more cars came equipped with airbags, killing the kids sitting in the front, parents began seating their children in the rear.
Now that alone may not seem like a reasonable excuse to forget one’s child in a steaming hot car. But that’s merely the setup for the real problem – the brain.
Biology plays a part in this too. When youngsters sat upfront, parents saw their kids right there, and that gave them a visual cue to unbuckle their child. It’s like your significant other leaving your keys or wallet on a table that you always sit at, so that you don’t forget the essentials.
A baby sitting in the rear, hidden by the top of the seat, starves the brain of that visual reminder. And if that child is asleep (or that dog isn’t barking), there are no auditory cues to remind you to unbuckle them.
There’s also the basal ganglia, a structure in the brain that controls our habits, allowing us to execute actions, habits or skills unconsciously after we’ve done them several times. That’s why you can drive home or go to work without thinking about it – it’s coded deep in your brain.
And then there’s the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex – both of which have to process new information. So if there’s a change in your routine, these two structures have to override the basal ganglia’s ingrained habits.
What’s even more impressive here, is the basal ganglia’s ability to silence the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex to carry out the routines it knows. It’s the reason why you forget to pick up laundry detergent even if you remember you had a conversation with your spouse to do so. And it’s a reason why it’s so frustrating.
What’s worse is when you combine the “sensory deprivation” of not seeing your child upfront with you, with today’s fast-paced, high stress life. Cognitive functions such as memory go out the window.
Dr. David Diamond, Ph.D., a neuroscientist in the psychology department at the University of South Florida further explained how stress could lead a person to forget a child (or a pet).
“It affects how our prefrontal cortex functions and makes it more likely we’ll do something out of habit.” He went on to explain that “…the basal ganglia can suppress all kinds of memories, even of things that are the most important to us.”
No One is Really Immune
Realistically, this can happen to anyone. If you’re a parent or a dog owner, you might shake your head and say, “no, not me”, but there are people out there today, dealing with the loss of a child who once said the same thing.
With that said, it’s vital for you to know the lethal effects of heat in an enclosed space such as your car interior, and what it does to the body. That knowledge alone can serve as a reminder to never forget a child or pet in a hot car.
What Happens to a Child Left in a Hot Car
A car with the windows rolled up is like a greenhouse. It seals in a tremendous amount of heat, rendering the inside of the vehicle much hotter than it is outside. Additionally, the temperature inside of a sealed car can rise much faster than it would outdoors.
Your car’s temperature can rise almost 19 degrees in just 10 minutes.
The inside of your car can reach the 40s or 50s even if outside temperatures are far cooler.
A child’s body temperature can rise 3 – 5 times faster than adults due to their smaller surface area and still developing cooling abilities.
Effects of Kids Locked in Cars
Within minutes, children can experience heat exhaustion. If it persists, their condition will transition into the much more serious heat stroke, which can lead to organ failure and death.
|Heat Stroke Symptoms in Babies|
To put the effects of extreme heat on children into perspective, it’s worth taking a look at what high temperatures can do to an adult.
As a whole, society needs to devote more attention to the issue of leaving kids in a hot car. There are still far too many cases of children getting sick or dying as a result of parents leaving or forgetting them.
7 Tips to Never Forget Your Kids in the Car
Regardless of how stressed you may feel, or whatever extenuating circumstances may arise, there are hacks to ensure that you never forget your child in a hot car. They range from simple reminders to more advanced ideas. Whatever you choose, they can all serve as lifelines if for some reason you didn’t remember to unbuckled your kid.
7 Hacks to Prevent Tragedy
- Put a valuable item in the back seat
- Place a large stuffed animal in the front seat as a reminder
- Make a note to yourself if your routine suddenly changes (could be written or set as a reminder on your phone)
- Make it a ritual to always look back no matter how busy or rushed you feel
- Download an app that reminds you of children onboard (such as Kars 4 Kids Safety)
- If stress affects your memory, find ways to reduce anxiety
- Call 911 immediately if you see a child in a locked car
Accidents Happen, But You Can Avoid Them
It’s safe to say that almost all of you reading this post will never come to the horrific realization that you left your child in the backseat. But if you’re the sort who gets absent-minded or disoriented when stressed, then develop a “system” or use a “hack” that makes unbuckling your kid automatic. Regardless of what anxieties you face, never let them come between you and your child.