A parent — this time, a United States war veteran — inadvertently left his one-year old set of twins in a hot car in New York City on Friday, which resulted in their deaths by heatstroke. I’m in pain, and as a pediatrician, father, and grandfather, I want to prevent any more of these kinds of deaths from happening.
These are not the first such deaths this year. Since 1998, when the United States started keeping records on the subject, there have been 818 deaths, according to noheatstroke.org. The bigger tragedy is that these deaths are completely avoidable.
We are never to judge these parents or any parents who forget children in their cars. It can happen to any person. Parents of all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, and ethnicities do it. 25% of all parents report that, at some point, they have lost awareness of a child in the car.
Parents who forget children in cars are neither criminally negligent nor are they “bad” parents. It happens because of the way our human brains work. Neuropsychologist Dr. David Diamond of the University of South Florida, who studies the phenomenon of parents forgetting about children and leaving them in cars, explains that there is a competition between the brain’s “habit” and “prospective” memory systems. The former will almost always dominate over the latter. Simply put, there is a flaw in the way our memory systems work. A change in routine, stress, and/or sleep deprivation only worsen things, no matter how much you love your children.
The good news is, there are solutions and interventions to prevent what some call “Forgotten Baby Syndrome” (FBS). They should be used at different points so there are no more tragic deaths of children this way. The consequences of the death of a child reverberate for generations.
- Take this phenomenon seriously. Don’t think that you are the person to whom it will never happen. Give up thinking, “I love my child so much that I can’t imagine ever leaving him/her in the back of the car.”
- Be honest about the limitations of this marvel called the human brain, especially when it functions during times of overload, stress, and sleep deprivation. Embrace its limitations.
- Physically open the car’s back door and check the back seat when leaving the vehicle. It is essential to implement this point 100%. Start today.
- Every day you are in the car, whether your baby is with you or not, take one item that you NEED to start your day, and put it in the car in front of the car seat. It could be your laptop, employee ID badge, your lunch, or your briefcase. Make it something you NEED, so you don’t forget. A lot of items are important, but none near the importance of your precious child.
- Communicate with your spouse and others in your home to maximize communication and minimize miscommunication. Let’s say a parent pulls the car into the driveway while a toddler is sleeping in the car seat. The back of the car is popped open, followed by the rush to unload the groceries. Do not assume that the toddler has been moved from the car seat, into the house. Verbally communicate to your spouse or an older child, something like, “You get the bundles while I get [child’s name].”
- Ask your babysitter or day care provider to call you within 10 minutes of drop off time if your child has not been dropped off yet. If the child has been left in the car, this action can prevent a death by hyperthermia.
- Lock all cars AFTER making sure there are no children inside.
- Keep cars and remote openers where kids cannot access them. Toddlers and children are capable of finding and using keys to open and “explore” cars where they are then trapped inside.
- Put a chain lock high up on the front and back doors so children can only let themselves out with a parent present.
- Build a community of support for prevention. Speak to your neighbors, asking them to commit to locking their cars and making sure that keys and remotes are not easily accessible. Have a block party after everyone has signed on.
- We live in an era where technology abounds. Navigation systems like Waze can be programmed with a message to remind drivers about children in the back of cars. An internet search will reveal gadgets that can be attached to a child’s car seat and synced with the parent’s phone so that, if the parent accidentally locks the car with the child inside, an alarm will sound within a matter of seconds.
- Work with your politicians to pass bipartisan legislation called the “Hot Cars Act.” This legislation, which has been introduced in both the Senate and the House, would require all new passenger vehicles in this country to come with standard equipment designed to help prevent child deaths from heat strokes suffered in motor vehicles. The Senate bill (S 1601) would require vehicles to come equipped with a system that prompts drivers to check rear seats after the car has been turned off. The House bill (HR 3593) would require vehicles to have a system that alerts drivers when a child is detected in a rear seat after the car is turned off.
“Ray Ray’s Law,” named for a little girl whose life was tragically lost this way, was passed in Texas in 2015. Ray Ray’s mother lobbied for this law, which mandates hospitals across Texas to educate new parents on the dangers of hot-car related deaths. Let’s take this law to the national level. Why not send every baby home from the hospital with some piece of technology that that can be clipped to a car seat and synced with the parent’s phone so, if a child is left behind, an alarm will be sounded?
I urge my fellow pediatricians and medical colleagues to discuss this with all parents.
Spread the word. Be vigilant. Avail yourselves of the technology. As the Talmud tells us, “To save one life is to save an entire world.”
For more information, see Dr. Lightman’s other article on this subject here.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.