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Does The Trend of Child Deaths in Hot Cars Reveal Bigger Issues Within Our Society?

Updated on June 13, 2015
Does our high stress society add to the problems of child deaths in hot cars?
Does our high stress society add to the problems of child deaths in hot cars? | Source

The summer of 2014 was a particularly bad year, at least in news exposure, of child deaths and injuries related to being left unattended in hot cars. Reasons from the parents/caregivers ranged from forgetfulness due to stress, tiredness, or distractions to possible criminal intent (see the case of the Georgia father in this article).

Some believe that young children are left more often than we realize in cars. But whether intentional or unintentional, being left in the car during soaring summer temperatures creates a dangerous situation that can quickly get out of hand.

Barring criminal intention or purposeful neglect, are children being unwittingly left in cars a symptom of a greater problem in our society. Does it have something to do with the lack of support for parents and the increasing demands on moms and dad to be able to do everything?

Are We Asking More Than Is Humanly Possible of Parents?

In those cases of true, unintentional abandonment of the child in a hot car, the stories are eerily similar.

They usually involve a change of routine; the dad usually takes the baby to daycare but due to a change in schedule, the mother ended up taking the baby that day. She was running on auto-pilot, muti-tasking, or distracted and went on to her place of work, forgetting the sleeping child in the back until it was too late.

Stress can also be a factor: work deadlines, stress related to health, finances, or other family issues have also all been cited as reasons the child was forgotten in the vehicle.

How do we get our minds off auto pilot when there are so many pressures?
How do we get our minds off auto pilot when there are so many pressures? | Source

In today's high stress world, more and more pressure is placed on individual parents to balance their work and home life. With the growing income inequality, the need for both parents to work full time in order to receive enough pay for basic necessities places an added burden on families with young children.

In the United States, maternity leave is short to non-existent as compared to other developed countries and very rarely is there much paternal maternity leave at all.

The result is tired, stressed parents who may ultimately make careless mistakes that end up costing their children's lives.

Deadly Mistakes

In a June 2014 Time Magazine article, Aaron Gouveia, talks about his experience with momentarily forgetting his infant son in the car and the fact that it was only because he forget his grocery list that he went back to the car and remembered his sleeping son. In Gouveia's case, it was winter and the single digit temperatures may have also quickly caused hypothermia and death for his baby.

His reason for forgetting his son was part of the same reasons many parents cite: a change in routine.

In a fascinating 2009 article for the Washington Post, Gene Weingarten, unravels the complicated reasons that children are left in cars and the gray areas of where criminal intent and prosecution meet, at best, manslaughter.

Weingarten points out that the incidences of children being left in cars increased substantially in the 1990s when the laws about child safety seats changed, making them rear facing.

In the article, he quotes a University of South Florida professor, David Diamond, who studies memory. Diamond notes that "if you are capable of forgetting your cell phone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child."

The human brain is wonderful but does not work perfectly.  People are able to forget very important things if the brain switches modes due to routine or stress.
The human brain is wonderful but does not work perfectly. People are able to forget very important things if the brain switches modes due to routine or stress. | Source

The article contains an amazing interview with Diamond where he explains the complication of memory and how our mind can switch to auto-pilot despite our best intentions.

Many of the factors that trigger this mode, including stress, are also factors that existed in the cases where children were accidentally left in vehicles.

Reading this article helps anyone to understand, especially those who are quick to say "that could never happen to me," that, yes, yes it could happen to you.

Ways To Prevent Accidental Deaths of Children Left In Cars

The ways to help prevent accidental abandonment of children in hot cars is clear, something must jog your memory. Something must help to break you out of autopilot, especially if you are stressed, tired, or distracted.

Here are some ideas:

  • Leave one or both shoes in the back seat.
  • Set several, successive alarms on your cell phone that will send an audio and visual reminder to check on your child.
  • Have someone else help you be accountable. Ask a friend to call you at a certain time to remind you about your child.
  • Place a note next to your inside, passenger door handle reminding you that you are supposed to drop the baby off at daycare.
  • Set a reminder that pops up on your work computer screen when you log in.

These are just a few of the ways that you can help to jog your memory. What are some other ways that you help to remind yourself? Leave a comment in the comments section!

What About Those Caregivers Who Leave Children Behind On Purpose?

Sometimes, though, criminal intent and neglect are to blame for the deaths or injuries of children in hot cars.

In June 2014, a Georgia father, Justin Harris, left his young child in the car all day while he went to work at Home Depot. While it appeared to be an accident, it was later revealed that the father had done research on his computer regarding what temperature the car needs to be in order for a child to die. He also researched what it was like to be child-free. Harris was arrested and is facing trial for what may be intentional neglect and murder.

In another case out of Portland Oregon, a nanny left a one month old and a three year old in a hot vehicle while she went to the tanning salon. She was arrested and charged.

Cases like these show that child hot car deaths are complicated and each case needs to be investigated individually to determine if there is criminal intent or a truly horrible mistake on the part of the caregiver.

We can help and support each other in order to reduce the number of child fatalities.
We can help and support each other in order to reduce the number of child fatalities. | Source

Hot Car Deaths Are Too Frequent

In developed nations like the United States, the deaths of children in hot cars happens to often. But painting all parents that this happens to with the same broad strokes does not help to find a solution to the problem.

As a nation, we should realize that parents with young children often face mounting pressures at home, work, and in society in general.

Offering support for your friends and family members, to help with the child or in other ways alleviate their stress, may help to prevent this tragedy from happening.

We are all imperfect humans and one moment of forgetfulness can lead to a lifetime of pain and regret.

In these cases, it is best to remember John Bradford's sentiment: "There but for the grace of God go I."


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    • LCDWriter profile image

      L C David 3 years ago from Florida

      Hi fellow Floridian, Sunshine625. You know, I can remember being so tired when kids were babies and toddlers that I literally forgot to turn into their bedroom one night and walked straight into the wall. Being stressed and tired does strange things to a person. While I never forgot my kid in the car, I was lucky enough to be able to stay home with them when they were little so I didn't have the added stress of daycare and trying to keep up with a career. My parents told the story of taking two cars to church one time when I was a baby and both of them assumed the other one had me and when they drove home (45 minutes away) they realized that neither had me. Luckily a nursery worker stayed behind with me until they got back to me. Things happen even in the most loving families. It is important to judge each case individually and to realize that when it truly was an accident, these parents will be living in torture and pain for the rest of their lives. Read the Weingarten article I linked and especially he interview with Diamond about how the brain works. It helps you to realize that none of us can truly say "I would never....."

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

      I have no idea how any parent could leave there child in the car...I'm at a loss. It just breaks my heart to think of those poor babies suffering in the heat as life slowly leaves their tiny bodies.

      I watched HLN today while they were discussing baby Copper...I watched as the mother sat listening to the charges against her me she didn't seem clueless. Such a sad story.

    • LCDWriter profile image

      L C David 3 years ago from Florida

      It's true bravewarrior, it's hard to imagine but many of these people are good parents whose brain just bleeped out for a second. I suggest reading the Weingarten article linked at the bottom of my article when you get a chance. It really helps you to understand how it can happen to even the most loving parent.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      Hot car deaths are so sad and it can happen in the blink of an eye here in Florida. Maybe distraction or change in routine is one of the contributing factors. Forgetting your cell phone I can see, but your child? Strapping your child safely in the car takes time and effort. How can you forget? But I can't judge just because I've never been in that situation. My child always came first. When I went back to work after 2 years and had to put him in daycare, I got up early enough to get him all packed up, took him into daycare and made sure he was settled before I headed off for work. Honestly, tho - that was routine became part of my automatic pilot.

      The Home Depot father sickens me. Children are so precious. I hope he has nightmares until the day he dies.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Your suggestions are good ones. This is a sad phenomenon that happens way too often. The Georgia father is a monster if he left his son purposely.

    • LCDWriter profile image

      L C David 3 years ago from Florida

      Thanks The Examiner-1 and PegCole17. As I mention in my hub and as outlined in the Pulitzer Prize winning article by Gene Weingarten, the particular circumstances for each instance are individual. However, pulling back to the big picture, there are trends and broad categories of reasons that trigger these memory lapses in cases where it was unintentional. For most instances that are not deemed criminal acts, these are the most common reasons for the incident happening---stress and/or a change in routine. Understanding our trigger points and how it affects our memory will make it easier to find ways to prevent this. Some of the ideas I mentioned may be simple but effective ways to pull us out of auto pilot and make us more aware.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 3 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      It is terribly hard not to be judgmental when it comes to neglectful behavior towards children. Stress is something that has a lot to do with it, I'm sure, but I agree with The Examiner-1 that there are other issues at play with the high incidence of this happening. You're right. "There but for the grace of God, go I."

    • The Examiner-1 profile image

      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      This was really interesting - and true - LCDWriter. I believe that there are many other reasons, besides the ones that you mentioned, for parents leaving their children in cars. I also know of a simple way for parents to remind themselves of their children. Just tie a child's own toy to the the door or nearby.

      I voted it up, shared it and pinned it.