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Barbara Alvarez Headshot

Hot Car Deaths and the Loss of Innocent Lives

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The sad phenomenon of hot car deaths is probably best personified by 22-month-old Cooper Harris, who died after his father, Justin Harris left him in his car seat instead of taking him to day care. While Harris has pleaded not guilty to charges of felony murder and second-degree cruelty to children, the debate about his actions continues.

I have no doubt that little Cooper suffered horribly. News accounts mention the abrasions on the back of his head and the scratches on his face, which he most likely suffered as he tried to escape the car seat he was buckled in. I don't want to dwell on child deaths that may have been deliberate. Instead, I want to focus on how parents can prevent their young children from being inadvertently left in their vehicles on warm or even hot days.

Getting Statistics Out of the Way...
By the end of July 2013, 15 children died after being left in hot cars by their parents or caregivers. One year later, 17 children have already died -- and we still need to get through to the end of December.

By the end of 2013, 44 children died of heatstroke. We don't know yet what that number will be by December 31, 2014. We can only hope that the numbers will slow and even stop.

In El Paso Texas, in the space of about one week, two toddlers were left in hot cars. Let's pause for just a minute here so I can lend a little perspective to the El Paso climate in summertime. It is HOT. Temperatures often reach and exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Knowing this, you can see how hot it can get in a closed car. Now, let's return to these children. One, a little boy, was rushed to El Paso Children's Hospital, where doctors say he may have sustained damage to his brain and internal organs. The second child, a 2-year-old girl, was forgotten overnight in her parents' car. It still gets hot in a car at night. The parents began looking for her at 3:00 a.m. Sunday morning -- she was found nearly nine hours later, at 12:30 after emergency personnel were called to the home. She was tragically pronounced dead after being taken by ambulance to Sierra Providence East Hospital. Two children in one city, dead within one week after being forgotten in hot cars.

How You Can Forget Your Child
When we hear that another child has died after being forgotten in the car by his or her parents, we shake our heads, sigh and wonder, "How can you forget your own child?" It does seem unthinkable. Let's try applying just a little insight to how this can happen. (Oh, before I continue, I am not trying to defend these parents. As a parent myself, I'm just trying to understand.)

One parent, Jodie Edwards, who works as a counselor and professor at a private Cincinnati, Ohio university, is the mother of two children. In August of 2008, she took her son to his day care center, then took her baby girl to the babysitter -- she thought. Every time she put the baby into her rear-facing car seat, the baby (Jenna) would fall asleep.

She remembers driving toward the sitter's house, but then, instead of driving there, she drove to her office, where she took her bags out of the front seat. Locking the door, she went inside. It was 92 degrees F. outside that day. Jenna stayed in the hot car for seven hours before she died.

Parents have good intentions. Something interferes with their plans and they miss stopping at day care or the sitter's house. Parents plan for their errands to be quick. Something happens inside the store and they are delayed minutes that become fatal for the child inside the car.

The Psychology Behind Forgetting Your Child
There's a term for forgetting your child in your car. It's called "Forgotten Baby Syndrome." The more often you perform certain tasks, such as putting the baby in the car seat, pulling out, driving to day care, then work, become so familiar that you may perform them on autopilot. Your brain's motor cortex takes over and you seem to make your drive to work without thinking.

The motor cortex competes against the cognitive part of your brain. The cortex often "wins out," meaning you get to work without dropping your baby at day care, especially if you don't normally do so.

"Death by Hyperthermia"
Any one of us could forget that we have our child strapped in a car seat in the back seat. If the seat is rear-facing, it's even easier. No matter what you do for a living - working as a teacher, nurse, police officer, landscape worker, clergy person, construction worker, it doesn't matter.

"It won't happen to me. I'm a good parent." We're all good parents. Most of us, anyway. Parents whose children die of hyperthermia are made into heartless monsters by other parents, law enforcement and the media.

Forgetting Your Child on a Hot Day
Let's talk about how to remember your child is in the back of your car. Forget about your motor cortex. You're going to use memory joggers, such as your phone, the baby's diaper bag, your brief case or messenger bag and your purse.

These have been suggested before, by various authorities striving to prevent another child death. Place these items in the back seat, where you'll have to go to get them out when you get to the office. When you open the back door, there's the baby, sleeping or cooing in her car seat.

Get back into your seat and take the baby to day care. Then, on your way back to work, let out a huge sigh of relief and thankfulness, because you have a baby safe in day care. She's not stuck in the back seat. She's alive.