How can anyone leave a child in a car? It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, but it’s also the scathing response to stories about children who die or are seriously injured as a result of being left in a hot car. Such stories spike every year during the summer, with some brutally high temperatures. In 2013, there were 44 such tragedies, and 2014 is on track to match that. While in some cases, care providers cruelly left their children in cars deliberately, far more commonly, they forgot them — and several groups are working on ways to make it harder to forget kids in the car.
Most often, the reason care providers forget that they have their children is due to stress, distractions and breaks in routine. The problem can be compounded without a failsafe or backup system — one parent might think the baby is with the other, for example, or a mixup at daycare may mean that neither parent is called when a toddler doesn’t show up, because the staff assumes the toddler is out for the day for medical appointments or other reasons. Tragically, the recommendation to put children in the backseat for additional safety has compounded the problem by making it literally possible for children to be out of sight and out of mind, especially if they quiet down or go to sleep during long car rides.
Many of the tips for preventing heat deaths are analog in nature; for example, some suggest keeping a teddy bear or other stuffed animal in the car seat, and moving it to the front seat when the child is in the car. This serves as a reminder that there’s a child in the car. Others suggest that putting briefcases, coats and other professional gear in the back seat forces adults to look in the back and see a child before heading out for work. “Where’s Baby?” reminds parents to “Look before [they] lock.” Setting up a failsafe, such as asking daycare facilities to call when children don’t arrive, can serve as an alert as well.
Other solutions are more high-tech, with inventors turning their minds to options to keep children out of hot cars using the powers of technology. Auto designer Dennis Aneiros, for example, designed a carseat that works with the integrated systems in the vehicle to flash the lights, honk the horn and start the A/C if no one responds. A smartphone app that works with a carseat sends an alert if a child is left in a stationary vehicle, if the seat is positioned improperly, or if a car is getting too hot. Proximity sensors have also been considered (the parent uses a seat clip for the child, and carries an alert device — if the two get separated, an alarm goes off). Automakers are considering the problem, and so are rocket scientists. Troublingly, government research on such systems shows they may not be entirely reliable, and they could create false security for parents.
Fighting heat deaths may require a combination of technology and public outreach campaigns, but in the meantime, what should you do if you see a child left alone in a car? Call 911 immediately, along with a service like 1-800-Pop-a-Lock. If necessary, don’t wait for help: Break a window to get the child out, and spray her with cool mist to help bring her body temperature down. Follow the directions of the 911 operator, and wait for paramedics to arrive.
Photo credit: Ben Francis.