Every year as summer approaches I see reports of children dying by being left in hot cars, and the first comment on every news article is about how a “good” parent would NEVER have let that happen. We want to assume these are bad parents because it is too painful and uncomfortable to accept that we are vulnerable to such a tragedy.
And so it keeps happening.
Did you know that Oklahoma is ninth in the nation for total hot car deaths, but number four in per capita hot car deaths? In Oklahoma, it is against the law to leave a child age six or younger unattended in a vehicle during extreme weather or without adequate ventilation.
Why You Should Care
Statistically speaking, the more a parent insists it would “never happen to them,” the more their child is actually in danger. That’s because they don’t have a safety net. They don’t plan on themselves being an imperfect human being and as a result, are leaving safety up to chance.
While there are some cases of neglect or intent to harm in these hot car deaths, the majority of parents really did, on some level, simply forget their child was in the car.
Here’s why you should suspend your judgment: the brain does not assign importance to your memories. Essentially that means if you have ever forgotten anything in your life, you can forget your child. No one is immune. This is simply how our brains work.
How it Happens
Many parts of your brain are working without you even knowing it. In order to operate efficiently, your brain (specifically the basal ganglia) puts certain tasks you do regularly into “autopilot mode.” You don’t think about these when you do them. Often, while driving to work your mind may think about other things while your body goes through the motions, and you wonder how you even got there.
Other parts of your brain are in charge of future planning and new memories. Sometimes these parts conflict with one another. When these systems are in competition, the more primitive basal ganglia will try to overrule the others.
What does this mean for transporting our children?
It means when we plan for a future scenario (“I need to take my child to day care instead of my husband today”) and store a new memory (“my child is in the car with me”), they can be suppressed by your “autopilot” that is used to taking you directly to work instead of daycare.
Your brain will stay in autopilot until something “reboots” your brain and brings you back to present awareness, such as the child crying or seeing your diaper bag in your seat instead of your purse.
What to Watch Out For
Often these heatstroke deaths happen because there is a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances. There are some common factors among these incidents. Being aware of these things in your life can help you take extra precautions.
- Change in Routine: New plans and memories can be temporarily suppressed or “overwritten” by your brain’s drive to be efficient and steer you into autopilot mode.
- Change in How You Interacted with your Child: Anything out of the ordinary such as your child falling asleep in the car can affect the way your brain remembers and thinks about them.
- Stress, Distraction, and Sleep Deprivation: All of these can impair your prospective memory. Your ability to remain in future-thinking mode is weakened and you are more likely to go into autopilot.
How to Prevent This
- Create a Reminder: Built-in reminders can pull you out of autopilot mode. Adding an action to your routine or placing a physical object in view helps keep the presence of baby in the front of your mind.
- Have Others Check-In With You: Make a plan with your childcare provider to call you if your child does not show up at the regular time. Or utilize a system such as KidCheck that sends text alerts every time your child is dropped off or picked up. Alternatively, you could text your spouse at every drop-off and pick-up. Ask what measures your childcare facility has in place if they transport your children.
- Keep Car Doors Locked at Home: 27% of vehicular heatstroke deaths occur because a child was playing unattended in the vehicle and became trapped. Make sure keys and remote entry devices are out of reach.
The bottom line is that these deaths are 100% preventable. Spreading the word about how and why these tragedies happen can help. The more that parents are aware of the potential dangers and accept that the human memory is faulty, the more children we can save!
Source: Jan Null, CCM, Department of Meteorology and Climate Science, San Jose State University, http://noheatstroke.org