It’s possible to leave a kid in a car. It can also be prevented

By now, most of us have heard about the young child who was found deceased in a hot car last week. We offer our condolences to the family for their unimaginable loss.

According to KidsandCars.org, on average, 38 kids per year die in hot cars. In about 55% of incidents, the child was unknowingly left in the vehicle. (For perspective, 25% of incidents involved the child getting into the car on their own.) Of the episodes in which a child was unknowingly left in the vehicle, 43% involved a caregiver believing they had dropped their kid off at daycare, 34% were forgotten in the car and 11% involved a miscommunication between caregivers.

As hard as it is to imagine, it is entirely possible to forget that there is a child in the car. Dr. David Diamond explains this as a lapse in prospective memory, which uses stored information in the brain to plan and execute a new action. As he says, “Successful performance of PM requires multiple cognitive operations, including: forming, organising and initiating the plan; retaining the memory of the intention over a delay period; performing the intention at the right time; and then remembering that the intended action took place.”

We all have prospective memory lapses — forgetting to return a call or driving straight home instead of detouring to the grocery store. When one of these lapses happens, it’s due to the “loss of awareness of the plan,” in Diamond’s words. He identifies six factors that contribute to loss of awareness: sleep deprivation, chronic/acute stress, multitasking, habitual behavior, distractions/interruptions and absence of a reminder cue (e.g., having a diaper bag on the floor of the backseat instead of on the seat next to you). And when someone assumes they have done something — like dropping off their child at day care — their brains can create a false memory that seems very real.

Often, a child is a caregiver’s reminder cue, but when a child is quiet and/or not visible, that cue can be absent. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 54% of hot car deaths involve children under 2 years old. Kids can be kept in rear-facing car seats until 3 years old, depending on their size. A small child or infant, in particular, could be strapped into a rear-facing car seat and not be visible to the driver. And if that child is sleeping or otherwise being quiet, the silence makes it easier to forget they are there.

There are steps that can be taken to reduce the chances of accidently leaving a child in the car. There are a variety of alarm and monitoring systems — everything from cameras to seatbelt sensors — available at a variety of prices, but all have the same goal: To alert you if your child has been left in their seat. For those who have kids in front-facing car seats, position the car seat diagonal from the driver’s seat so it can be seen more easily in the rearview mirror. Some newer vehicles will even give a visual or audible reminder to check the backseat when you shut the car down.

Sometimes caregivers make the (ill-advised) decision to leave a child in the car “just for a minute” while they run into the store, bank, etc. If you notice a child unattended in a car, first check to see if the child is responsive (yell, tap on the window, wave your hands) and if the car is running. If they are not, call 911 and let dispatchers advise you on next steps. If the child is responsive, request the business (if you think you know which one) page the parent and keep an eye on the child. If no one appears within a minute or two, call 911.

No one thinks something like this can happen to them until it does. We are all fallible, but there are things we can do to prevent mistakes and ways we can help each other when mistakes do happen.