How could anyone forget a child in a car?

How could anyone leave their child in a car, forgotten?

Stop before you judge. If you’ve never read one of the best long form pieces written about this tragedy, you should. Written by Gene Weingarten in The Washington Post back in 2009, Fatal Distraction is a Pulitzer Prize winning piece that offers up the proverbial mile in another’s shoes as well as an in-depth journey into the mechanics of the brain.

If you think it’s a fairly new parenting gut punch, you’re right. The advent of rear-facing child seats has reconfigured – literally – the way we drive with children on board. It sounds flip to put the words “out of sight, out of mind” into this equation, but our brains are hardwired at a level beyond our cognisance and everybody screws up sometimes. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose those times, or we’d never forget anything, let alone something as dear as a child.

While it happens in all regions and in all weather, elevated temperatures are particularly devastating to the elderly, the disabled, pets and children. The National Weather Service sites dark dashboards and interiors of being able to reach temperatures exceeding 82 degrees Celsius; these components are incredibly efficient at heating the air around them, making the inside of a car deadly in minutes. With an outside temperature of 26 degrees Celsius, a car interior can reach 50 degrees Celsius in just an hour.

But who could do this? Who could walk away from their car, absolutely forgetting a child? According to the WP article, “[t]he wealthy do… the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.”

When horrific things happen to other people, most of us are quick to find reasons why it couldn’t happen to us. How else to process the unthinkable, but to distance ourselves from it? We do it from the minor – I won’t slip because I wear sensible shoes – to the major – I won’t spend my life in prison because I’d never murder someone. But finding comfort in finding a personal escape clause is flawed on two fronts: it offers you no real guarantee, and it fails to prevent a very real problem.

As you can imagine, the market was flooded with fixes as the headlines grew. You can trace pages of patents over the past decade, and I’ve heard of everything from people flogging a suction cupped toy you slap on your dash each time you put your child in the car, to higher tech car seat sensors paired to a gadget on your keychain. The problem? Too much of a fail factor.

If a buckle sensor fails because apple juice hits it, it’s no good. If a battery fails in a remote, it’s no good. It’s not that aftermarket brains can’t sort out some excellent ideas; it’s the threat of one of those failing at some level that sends people scurrying from the litigious fall out.

Which leads to the only response that will ever make sense: the manufacturers. If a car can tell me every single time that I’ve left my lights on, it can tell me if something is resting on any rear seat. It can’t be an option; it can’t be disabled. Various companies, including GM, have been announcing work in this area sporadically for over a decade but in recent years, it’s been crickets.

On July 1st of this year – just last week – the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers posted a note about children and hyperthermia in cars. The group’s stated intent is to be a “united voice for the auto industry”. Members include all the big name manufacturers, and it seeks to address industry news and economics, safety and innovation. In the midst of several reported child deaths in recent days, what did the bulletin state? That people should keep car keys away from children, and put a diaper bag on the front seat to remind yourself you have a child in the car.

I recall when Volvo rolled out the intruder alert sensor several years back. From a heartbeat sensor on the key fob, you could tell if someone was hiding in your car. Never heard of it? Didn’t think so; buyers ignored it in droves. But the technology is indicative of what the industry is capable of if the demand is there. Unfortunately, car technology is predicated on numbers. Rear cameras are becoming ubiquitous while passenger sensor is stagnating because as horrible as it sounds, more children are run over than are left in cars.

What if consumers could be convinced of auxiliary uses? What if, like a backup camera preventing rollovers onto bikes and hockey nets, a seat sensor became useful to remind you of a briefcase tossed in the back seat, or that last grocery bag? If we can’t make you care about some random child, can we make you care about your own convenience?

I will gladly hand back things like the ability to read Facebook updates while driving to achieve this. Instead of technology seeking out new ways to distract us, maybe it should be used to do the opposite.

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7 responses to How could anyone forget a child in a car?

  1. Pat says:

    I believe that Ford has worked on a sensor that chimes if someone is in the car, still belted, when you open the door. Someone should have an app that will alert you if someone is still in your car. Unfortunately, when people break their normal routine, these things can happen. Imagine having to live with the guilt of leaving your tyke in a hot car to perish. Terrible.

  2. Sandy says:

    My car was screaming at me one day when I left the grocery store and I couldn’t figure out why. I had to pull over and realized that the bags of milk I had just picked up were on the passenger seat and the car thought that a person was there without a seatbelt.
    I have thought about this many times…..if they can sense that weight, why on earth is there not something to sense that person left in the car?

    But just like everything else, there has to be a market for it, and somebody has to be willing to pay for it.

  3. Cheryl says:

    As Sandy says, my car can tell if there is someone in the passenger seat and decide whether or not to turn on the airbag, and displays on the dash whether or not it is on or not, why can’t this be extended to the back seat?

  4. Zena says:

    But none of this addresses the people who deliberately leave their kids in the car because “I’m only going into the store for 10 minutes, I’ll be right back.” Who wants to disturb a sleeping toddler, or haul a crying one into a store when they’re “only going in for a bag of milk” (or whatever)?

    Problem is, that 10 minutes can quickly turn into half an hour, by which time said toddler might be baked.

    I think that every driver training program should include a segment where the trainee is required to sit in a car on a hot summer day, with all windows and doors shut tight for at least ten minutes, to really get an idea of how it feels. Sometimes people don’t get it until they experience it personally.

  5. nursedude says:

    Friend sent me an email to say that a woman from Oshawa (’nuff said) was in Port Perry and left her dog AND kids in the car while going to dine at a restaurant.

    I think the Humane Society and CAS should repossess the dog and kids and take everything from her so that she is forced to live in her car in a field without trees.

    But then I have often been called a softie.

  6. Lorraine Lorraine says:

    Oh, don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe in charging and jailing those who leave their kids intentionally in a car. Wrote a column about that a few years ago, got into an argument with an idiot who told me “he could see his baby from the store window the whole time, and I was an idiot for thinking that wasn’t safer than unbuckling the kid in winter”. It went on. Dad of the Year.

    I also believe there is a very clear line between the cases in that article I linked, and the slot-playing, restaurant-going, lazy-ass parents who think a car is a babysitter. There’s a difference.

    When they consider laying charges, “intent” is a very big issue.

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