As the nation mourns the deaths of the 31 people killed recently in mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, discussion is renewed over the causes of these tragedies and ways to prevent them. Re-enacting the ban on assault weapons such as the AR-15 and high-capacity magazines that have no place in a civilized society outside the military isn’t going to solve a problem that goes far deeper. But it would be a start.
As usual, there will be public debate over gun control, mental illness, how to identify and head off possible attackers beforehand, and nothing will happen until the process repeats itself with the next bloodbath. So far this year, we have had more mass shootings in this country than we have had days.
My focus here, however, is on another dark topic that we see way too often at this time of year. It’s that of an infant or toddler who was left and forgotten in a car seat on a hot summer day, also with the worst result.
I can’t stand to read the stories and I cannot imagine ever being able to get over such an unfathomable tragedy if it were to happen to a family member or friend. Last week brought news of the deaths of 1-year-old twins of heatstroke or hyperthermia who were left in a car in a New York City parking lot while their father was at work, having forgotten to drop them off at their daycare location. You’ve heard or seen the reports every summer. An average of 37 infants die every year in that way, a number that hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years.
The irony is that these deaths are the unintended consequences of safety measures that have been enacted over the past three or four decades to protect children in vehicles. I can’t recall ever hearing of such a tragedy in the days before cars had seat belts and infants and toddlers were required to be strapped into their own safety-approved seat anchored in the back seat of a vehicle.
In our family, I can well recall my siblings, all younger than I, crawling back and forth at will from the front to the middle to the rear-facing third seat in our 1957 Ford station wagon on road trips or even short runs to the grocery store.
I can remember my younger siblings, maybe 2 or 3 years old, standing unprotected on the front seat to get a better view. Thank goodness my father or mother never had to make a sudden stop in those instances. If there was such a thing as a child car seat, it was just a booster seat plopped onto the car seat with nothing to secure it. Without a doubt, requiring infant seats to be in back has saved lives.
Scientists have studied the causes of what is termed “forgotten-baby syndrome.” It occurs to parents who are not abusive, intoxicated, mentally ill or otherwise grossly negligent. They have found that such tragedies often occur when a parent who doesn’t normally drop the child off at day care mentally goes on “autopilot” and forgets about the child, who is quiet and out of sight in the back seat. More than 900 children have died in hot cars nationwide since 1990, according to Kids and Cars, a nonprofit organization that has extensively studied children left unattended in vehicles.
The biggest danger is a parent thinking it can’t happen to them or that they would never forget their own child in a car. A change in routine, lack of sleep, and stress all are factors that can lead to a child unknowingly being left in a vehicle. Although it’s accidental, it’s reasonable to think there is no excuse for this ever happening.
That said, it’s astounding to me that with all the safety equipment and technology and electronic notifications and warnings in cars these days that there isn’t a sensor or device built into every vehicle and/or child’s seat that would trigger a warning when a child is left in the seat with the doors closed and the engine off — perhaps with a voice message that would get the driver’s attention instead of another chime that the driver may ignore.
Cars are equipped with sensors that turn on the airbag system if someone is sitting in the front passenger seat. We are alerted if a door is ajar or the trunk or hatchback isn’t fully latched. All sorts of cameras are available to allow the driver to see anything directly in back, anything directly in front and anything to the side of the vehicle.
Such a system could also address the problem of children who climb into unoccupied vehicles, unbeknownst to parents, another situation that too often results in tragedy.
Until that happens, various solutions have been suggested. First, arrange for the preschool or daycare provider to contact a family member immediately if the child does not show up on time. Some technology is available and there are gadgets out there, including apps for your cellphone that send reminders. Another suggestion is to put a possession, such as your left shoe, cellphone, laptop computer or handbag, that you definitely won’t leave the car without — sadly, even if you’ve forgotten about the child — in a place that requires you to open a back door to retrieve.
Get in the habit of doing this for every trip with your child or grandkid. Someday it may save him or her a horrible death and you possible legal charges and a lifetime of grieving and guilt.