It’s about halfway through summer and sixteen children in the United States have lost their lives to hyperthermia due to being left in a vehicle. It’s utterly heartbreaking every time a new one hits the headlines because it is so very preventable. Think it could never happen to you? Think you could never, ever, forget about your child in a car? Think again.
I spent a great deal of time researching for this post. What stuck with me the most and made a lasting impression on me were the parent stories posted on kidsandcars.org, as well as The Washington Post article “Fatal Distraction.” For a moment, that was me. I was transported in my mind’s eye to opening the car door and realizing what happened. That my child was in the car. And had been in the car all day. And it is my fault. At that moment, something clicked, and I got it. For the first time, I really got it. Accidental hyperthermia deaths happen because in that parent’s mind, in that moment, the child isn’t there. The baby hasn’t been forgotten. In that parent’s mind, the baby is already at day care, or safely at home with his other parent. In short, if you are capable of leaving your cell phone on the counter as you fly out the door, or locking your keys in your car, you are capable of forgetting your child in the car.
According to Golden Gate Weather Services, the temperature inside a vehicle can climb from 80 to 123 degrees in about an hour. A not so official experiment conducted by CSFTL backed this up, as you can see from our photos. However, our thermometer stopped functioning once it reached 122 degrees. My non-scientist, scientific conclusion is that if it is too hot for electronics to function properly, it’s certainly too hot for a person.
Kids and Cars is the organization tasked with the heart-wrenching job of tracking vehicle hyperthermia deaths. In 2014, there have been 16 deaths. The average per year is between 29 and 49, for a total of over 720 deaths since 1990.
In nearly three-fourths of the recorded incidents, the child’s death was completely unintentional. The child was unknowingly left in the vehicle by a parent or caregiver, or the child had become trapped in the vehicle from playing in it. Once again, completely unintentional.
The following stories are all from normal, attentive parents. Involved parents that show up for their kids’ soccer games and research what kind of baby food is best and make sure their baby’s crib isn’t recalled and which school districts fit their child best. They all have one thing in common: they forgot. They were wrapped up in remembering all of the 16,000 things we all have to get done every day: from picking up the dry cleaning to figuring out what’s for dinner to remembering to schedule that dentist appointment. They were running on autopilot to get to work or school or get the groceries put away, and they forgot. None of these stories end with a child losing their life, but had the circumstances been just a little different, they very well could have. Don’t think it couldn’t happen to you, because it could.
It was a no-school day, so I dropped my son off with the neighbor for the day while I went to work. I hopped in the car and starting driving my usual route, except I didn’t go to work. Wrapped up in my daily routine, I found myself in the parking lot of my son’s preschool, horrified that he wasn’t in the back seat and confused why there weren’t any other cars there. It took a full minute for my brain to reconnect that, in fact, I had already dropped off my son with the babysitter: there was no school. It’s not hard to see how a little variance in an ingrained routine can cause one to just… forget.
It was hot, really hot, that summer. The kids were out of school and we had just gotten back from some errands. It was easily 95 degrees outside. The baby was screaming and needed a nap and my 3-year-old needed help out of her seat. I told my older kids to help her get out while I ran the baby inside to put her down. They had done this many times; it was nothing new to them. I go inside, get the baby down and stay with her to make sure she doesn’t roll off the bed. The kids are being quiet watching television downstairs. The older ones come up after a while and I ask if their sister is sleeping. They tell me they don’t know where she is and that she’s probably still in the van. My heart sank. I screamed and ran out to the van to find my van door open and my 3-year-old still harnessed in her seat, drenched in sweat, sobbing hysterically. To this day, I believe the only thing that saved her was being able to push the automatic door button with her foot. I grab her, rush her inside, strip her down and give her a cool bath while telling the older kids to get her some water. She was going to be fine. We were one of the lucky ones. We were one whose mistake didn’t cost them a child.
It was a hot summer day and I decided to take my kids and meet a friend at our community pool. I had recently had a second child, with a large age gap in between my first and second children. I was getting my oldest out of the car as my friend pulled into the parking space near us. I saw her and waved. I got my oldest out of the car and she got her two kids out. When I saw that they were ready, I grabbed my purse and locked the car up. I started walking away and was confused as to why she was standing near my car. She said, “the baby?” and then I had remembered that I forgot to take my newborn out of the car, too. I don’t know how long it would have taken me to remember him if she wouldn’t have spoken up.
Now that we have realized and accepted the failures of our human brains and the possibility that we as parents can make a mistake, what can we do to prevent something so tragic from happening to us?
- Remember the simple phrase, “Look before you lock.”
- Keep your purse, or briefcase on the floor of the backseat. Force yourself to walk to the rear of the vehicle every time to get something. Even just a glance to the back seat is enough to jar a memory that a child is in the car with you, especially if they aren’t regularly.
- Stow your cell phone in the back seat. You don’t need it while driving and it will force you to check the back seat.
- Put your left shoe in the back seat.
- Keep a stuffed animal in your child’s car seat. When they’re in the car, put the animal on your front passenger seat as a reminder of your backseat riders.
- Don’t leave sleeping children in the car and go inside – even in your garage. That car nap isn’t worth it when it’s far too easy to get wrapped up in other children, laundry, dinner, and phone calls and forget a child is asleep in a potentially dangerous situation.
- Don’t leave children in your vehicle while you run in for an errand – even a momentary one. It takes a remarkably short amount of time for a child to overheat in an enclosed vehicle, even with the windows cracked. It’s worth it to take the extra few minutes to take your kids inside with you.
- Set up a system with your day care provider or significant other. Plan to call or have someone call you if your child isn’t dropped off by a certain time. Call your significant other at the same time each day to make sure the other either has the child, or the child is in the correct spot.
- Set an alarm on your phone.
- Keep vehicles locked in the driveway and teach children never to play in a vehicle. Hyperthermia deaths can happen when a child decides to play in an unattended vehicle and becomes trapped.
These tips for reminders are not an all-inclusive list. If you have a system that works for you that isn’t on this list, don’t worry! Whatever you do that can remind you to look before you lock is an important step in child passenger safety. In order for these tricks to be effective, you need to remember that it can and does happen to anyone. It can happen to you. Be mindful of your surroundings and be proactive in keeping your children safe.