On September 15th, the House of Representatives met over the introduction of new legislation regarding the phenomenon of children being tragically left in hot cars by absent minded or careless parents. The Helping Overcome Trauma for Children Alone in Rear Seats Act or HOT CARS Act of 2016 (H.R. 6041) would make it mandatory for the US Department of Transportation to issue a rule soon on the inclusion of electronic reminders of children left in the backseats of new vehicles. This system would become activated when the driver exits the vehicle.
Heatstroke was the leading cause of non-crash vehicular deaths for children fourteen years and younger in America, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
How could a Loving Parent Leave their Child in a Hot Car?
Our first instincts are to assume that heatstroke deaths of children left alone in cars is the result of poor parenting. These clearly must all be parents who are abusive or dysfunctional in some major way. Well, it turns out that just is not true. With the invention of airbags in cars, parents were told to place all small children and babies in the backseat. This lead to them being far easier to forget when a parent or guardian is distracted or under serious stress. Since the 1990s, child deaths from this have average a few dozen a year. When you profile the people who have tragically lost a child this way, there is no particular demographic to isolate. Rich, poor, old, young – it doesn’t matter. Also, a history of child abuse is not common at all among these families.
What is common is the basic structure of the human brain. The anatomy of our brains is really a collection of increasingly more ancient pieces connecting with more recent ones and trying to make harmony. The higher structures of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, can take care of the activities and thoughts that need most of our attention. The lower structures at the base of the brain handle the things that the brain doesn’t think require lots of attention. Driving or walking can begin with all of your focus, but after a certain amount of time your attention can shift while still performing the act. Once you arrive at your destination, you become aware of the fact that you were moving but may not remember everything that happened along the way. Exposure to stress can actually cause the brain to allow the higher function to give way to the lower function, resulting in more mistakes.
Some parents who have lost children to hyperthermia deaths are irresponsible; there are parents who guessed that leaving a child in the car while running errands was safe and guessed wrong, others who used drugs or alcohol to excess and were too intoxicated to remember their children. Still, approximately half of all lethal cases will involve good parents trying to do the right thing, who simply succumb to the weakness of the human mind to face all the challenges of modern life.
Rear Seat Reminder
Some automakers are getting ahead of the curve and are offering their own unique solutions to this problem now. The Buick Lacrosse and the GMC Acadia for the year 2017 now come equipped with a child safety system called the Rear Seat Reminder. The feature does not monitor whether you have a child in the rear seats or not, but under certain conditions it will simply remind you to check the back seat before you exit the vehicle. The rear seat reminder monitors the doors. If a rear door is opened and closed within ten minutes of the vehicle being started, or if the rear doors are ever opened while the vehicle’s engine is running, the system will become activated.
When you turn the engine off, it will make five beeps and show a message on the instrument panel to remind the driver to check the back seat. This is a very subtle and somewhat elegant way to make it that much harder to forget about your child when the commute is over.
Sense a Life
A startup has joined the fight against heatstroke death in cars with a new device and app that alert people to the presence of children left in the car. It uses a sensor and speakers to notify a driver that a child is still in the vehicle. Sense a Life will deliver a verbal message to remove the child when it feels you are about to exit the car. If that audible warning is not headed, a message will then be sent to a smartphone through the mobile app, making it very hard to forget or ignore. The team behind this product is seeking investment through Kickstarter and plans to begin delivering units in December of 2016. The device takes seconds to install, requiring the speaker to be attached to the driver’s seat and the sensor to be attached to a child’s car seat.
Less Judgement, More Solutions
Dying alone in a hot car is one of the most agonizing ways to die. Our imaginations take us to the worst places when we consider what must have happened every time we hear of one of these hot car death incidents happening on the news. It’s easy to go from being horrified to becoming filled with righteous anger at the parent who placed that child in the car and doomed her to that fate. Still, when we examine how these incidents happen, there are not always villains to hate, but conditions that must be fought. Given what we know about how the human brain works, the placement of children’s car seats creating distance between them and parents, and how the stresses of modern life can overwhelm even the most loving of parents, wouldn’t it be more productive for us to focus on ways to prevent this from happening? Technology is our best bet. In the coming year or two, we will see if the Rear Seat Reminder and Sense a Life can address the mental limitations inherent in us all.