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Why Do Parents Forget Their Infants in Cars?

Why do Parents Forget Their Infants in Cars?

This article was originally published on kidstraveldoc.com.

New York. July 31, 2019. It happened again. A father, a social worker, was charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide for leaving his one-year old twins strapped into the backseat of his car on a hot July day while he worked his eight-hour shift at a VA hospital. He forgot to drop them off at daycare. The twins are the 22nd and 23rd children to die such deaths in the US this year. And August, the commonest month for heat-related deaths, is yet to come.

Neighbors of the father are rallying to his support. They describe the circumstances surrounding the deaths as incomprehensible. They say he is a caring, loving, child-oriented person.

1. Surveys show that the vast majority of adults involved in these tragedies are responsible individuals. Like you. They simply forget that a child is in the car, or there is a mix-up between parents regarding who is to drive the child that day, or they leave the car “for a second” to mail a letter and become distracted by a friend or an event, for example.While it is a hassle to remove children from car seats for two-minute errands, leaving them can land you in jail – even if nothing happens. In some states it is a felony to leave children unattended in a car.

2. Be aware of your state of mind when driving with a child. Stress, emotional issues, lack of sleep, medications, and concerns over the weather, for example, can affect your judgment. Other contributing factors include mechanical problems with your car, or an impulse to stop for coffee. Combinations of factors further increase risk.

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3. Parked cars can be killers. Last year, 51 American children died of heatstroke and dozens more suffered permanent brain damage due to heat. Fifty-two percent (52%) of these children were accidentally left in a car; 30% climbed into a car on their own, and 17% were left in a car on purpose and then forgotten. Many other children experienced “close calls.” Only 7% of the adults are believed to have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the incident.

4. Temperatures inside cars rise fast. The temperature inside a car parked in the sun on a hot day can reach 160 degrees F (71 C). Windows rolled down a few inches (or centimeters) helps little. Even when outside temperatures are only 80 degrees F (27 C), the temperature inside the car can reach deadly levels in 20 minutes. In fact, children have suffered heat stroke in parked cars with outdoor temperatures in the fifties.

5. The younger the child, the greater the risk. In a hot vehicle, with no access to liquids, a young child’s body temperature increases rapidly, far faster than an adult’s in similar circumstances. Children are less able to sweat; sweating rids the body of heat. At 105 degrees F (40 C), the body’s temperature control systems become sluggish. At 107 degrees F (42 C), vital organs begin to shut down. Much of the damage is irreversible.

6. Look Before You Lock, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission. Train yourself to check the backseat before leaving cars. Place your briefcase, wallet, or work badge on the seat next to the child. One mother puts her shoes there. (She drives barefoot but wears shoes for walking.) Also, place one of the child’s toys or the diaper bag on the front seat.

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7. Check your car immediately if your child is out of sight. Teach children that cars are not play areas. Lock cars when not in use. Young children find it easier to enter unlocked cars than exit them. And keep an eye on children when the trunk is open.

8. When you see a young child alone in a car, call 911. Don’t assume that an adult will be right back. Minutes count. If the door is unlocked, remove the child from the car if the child does not look right. In an emergency pour cold water over the child. If the child is responsive, also offer liquids.

9. The incidence of children left in cars rose sharply in the 1980s – the result of campaigns to improve safety. Until then most infants rode car seats placed in the front seat. But studies showed that infants are safest when their car seats are on the backseat and facing backwards, making sleeping infants practically invisible to the driver. But overall, placing infants on the backseat facing backward is safest.

10. Some new car models are equipped with various devices to alert drivers of an infant in the backseat. One system under study consists of sensors that are activated when the driver closes the driver’s car door. The sensors send off an audible alarm if it detects movement in the back seat. The problem: some healthy infants when sleeping move insufficiently and their breathing is too shallow to activate the alarm. In another system, an alarm sounds when the motor is turned off if the rear door was opened before or during the trip. This alerts the driver to check the back seat. This system is plagued with false alarms. No system is yet entirely reliable.

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Bills are in front of both houses of Congress to mandate the use of such devices.


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Dr. Karl Neumann

Karl Neumann MD, FAAP, CTH is a Pediatrician, Travel medicine practitioner, Journalist Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Weill Medical College of Cornell University (retired) Clinical Associate Attending Pediatrician, New York Presbyterian Hospital–Cornell & Columbia Medical Center, New York, New York. (retired) Attending Pediatrician, (retired) Long Island Jewish Hospital Private pediatric practice, Forest Hills, NY (retired). Director, (formerly) Family Travel and Immunization Clinic of Forest Hills, Queens, NY Former Co-editor, International Child Health Newsletter, American Academy of Pediatrics Author/Editor/Writer Chapters on traveling with children in major textbooks on travel medicine. DuPont and Steffen. Textbook of Travel Medicine and Health, 1st and 2nd editions Jong and Zuckerman. Travelers’ Vaccines. Schwartz, Wilder-Smith, Shaw. Travel Medicine: Tales Behind The Science. CDC Health Information for International Travel 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018. (The Yellow Book) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Public Health Service Editorial Board: Travel Medicine and Infectious Diseases (Elsevier) (2000-2008) Writer: The Healthy Traveler (1980-1992.) Weekly newspaper column. Appeared in Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, Toronto Star, Philadelphia Enquirer, and many other leading newspapers. Feature articles about travel/health in the New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Travel Holiday, McCall’s, Child, and numerous other publications. Traveling Healthy Newsletter (1987-2002). Widely read by physicians around the world. Medical Editor, American Druggist, 1979-1989 Author, Kidstraveldoc, the website for traveling with children Chairman and Editor Emeritus, Publication Committee, Wilderness Medical Society. Former Editor, International Society of Travel Medicine Newsletter. Former ISTM Webmaster Frequent lecturer on travel medicine in the United States.