On a hot Sunday in July, a father in Mississippi tried to coax his 3-year-old daughter into learning how to release the buckle on her car seat.
The preschooler couldn’t figure it out. So he tried to get her to learn how to open the back door on her own. That didn’t work either.
“She just couldn’t do it, which is terrifying to me,” said Lawrence Patihis, a memory researcher at the University of Southern Mississippi. Patihis had become concerned about his daughter after hearing news of the spike in heat-stroke deaths in children left behind or trapped in cars.
Safety experts are pushing regulators and the auto industry to come up with technological solutions to help solve the problem of pediatric heatstroke in cars. But it has been hard to get momentum on the issue in large part because the public blames parents for being irresponsible rather than seeing the issue as one that could affect anyone.
But as an academic who has studied the way memory works, Patihis said he knows he’s just as likely as anyone else to forget his daughter in the car.
“People are much more confident about how accurate their memory is compared to how accurate it actually is,” Patihis said. “In this case, I think people might overestimate how their enormous instinct to protect their child would overcome memory lapses.”
As of Friday, Aug. 5, 26 children have died from overheating in cars this year, including a set of twins in Georgia on Thursday. That surpasses the number of deaths for all of 2015, which hit 25. Not all children are forgotten — some children climb into vehicles to play or retrieve a favorite toy. And others are left by their caregivers on purpose; people who are unaware or disregard how dangerous hot car interiors can be for small bodies.
The problem is complex, with no simple answers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has addressed it with a public education campaign aimed at teaching parents the dangers of hot cars and providing memory tips and tricks. Most aftermarket products aimed at alerting parents of a forgotten child are unreliable, and only General Motors has come up with a reminder technology that could tackle the issue, now on the 2017 GMC Acadia but expected for more models.
But unlike other issues that have involved child entrapment — like the instances of children trapped in abandoned refrigerators in the 1950s or heatstroke deaths of children trapped in trunks in the 1990s — legislators have been unmotivated to tackle this issue. Caregivers who have dealt with this problem, researchers and safety experts say they believe that’s because society places the blame solely on parents.
“Before the accident, I thought it was incredibly bad parenting that led to this,” said Eric Stuyvesant, a landscaper from Garland, Texas, who left his 3-year-old son Michael in the back of his car one hot morning in June 2015. “I was a parent-shamer on the Internet for years before realizing it could happen to anybody.”
If Internet commenters are any indicator of public opinion, Americans have a harsh view of parents when these kinds of accidents occur. When a child climbs into a car and gets trapped, commenters accuse the parents of not being vigilant enough. If a parent forgets their child in the car, the comments will often skew to calls for criminal charges. Of the 26 deaths this year, nine parents or caregivers have been charged with a crime, usually neglect or manslaughter.
“The vitriol after something like this happens is amazing; the comments are beyond mean and cruel,” said Janette Fennell, founder of KidsAndCars.org, an activist group that has heatstroke as one of its top priorities. “It tends to be a bit of a defense mechanism. If you make monsters out of those people, then it won’t happen to you.”
But Patihis said memory lapses can happen to anyone. These cases usually happen when there has been some change in the daily routine — one parent is sick and relies on the other parent to take the baby to daycare, or the parent makes an unusual stop or a grandparent is doing the drop-off instead of the regular caregiver. Those kinds of changes mess with our habitual memory, which is ingrained. To remember a change in routine, people need to keep reminding themselves of that change, he said. And once they stop reminding themselves, habitual memory takes over.
And if a baby is asleep in the back or just quiet, it could get unintentionally left behind.
The American public has dealt with child entrapment issues before. In the 1950s, people began disposing of old refrigerators that typically closed with a latch and were impossible to open from the inside. Quickly, local legislators began passing laws that made it illegal to dispose of the appliances with the latch or door attached, and in some places violators faced jail time if found guilty. In 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower signed a law making it illegal to ship fridges across state lines unless they could be opened from the inside. Today, refrigerators are held shut with magnets instead of latches to avoid those problems.
And in the summer of 1998, five children died from heatstroke after being trapped in car trunks. They all had been playing inside the cars. Those cases helped push for a law that forced manufacturers to install handles that can open trunks from the inside.
Also in the late ’90s, states began introducing laws making it illegal to drive with young children in the front seat of a car because new front airbags were causing children harm — which may have inadvertently caused heatstroke deaths to rise because they force children to be placed out of sight. In 1998, 35 children died from injuries caused by front-seat airbags, which were designed to lessen the impact of crashes on adult bodies but proved too harsh for children.
Fennell said there is a correlation between the rear-seat rule and heatstroke deaths.
“When you make a significant change in the way children are transported, there is an unintended consequence,” she said.
Aditya Belwadi, a research scientist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention, said that public education is helping a bit, but he believes there are technological solutions that could reduce the fatality rate to zero.
“We are definitely making progress, but we have a long way to go,” he said.
But beyond its public education campaign “Look Before You Lock,” NHTSA is not pushing for any new rules related to the issue. Last summer, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind told Reuters that if automakers “develop [systems], and they work, and they’re effective, we don’t need to get into it.”
In 2012, NHTSA took a look at the aftermarket products aimed at alerting parents when their children were left in car seats and deemed the products unreliable and limited in their effectiveness.
Since then, only one car seat has been praised byConsumer Reports for its ability to connect with parents. The Evenflo SensorSafe worked most of the time in most cars tested by Consumer Reports. The seat connects with a car’s OBD-II port and when buckled, chimes to alert parents a child is in the seat as soon as the car turns off. Consumer Reports said the technology is “promising.”
The GMC Acadia uses a similar alert system, but it’s not connected to a car seat. Instead, the system detects when the back door has been opened at any time during a trip or if it was opened within 10 minutes of the car starting. If either of those things happens, when the car is turned off it chimes five times and a message pops up on the dashboard reminding the driver to check the back seat.
Tricia Morrow, GM’s global safety strategy engineer, said the system was designed to chime when the vehicle is shut off because that’s when the most important car chimes sound off, such as reminders to turn off your headlights or to nudge you into taking your car keys with you. The technology will be rolled out across GM’s brands within the next few years, standard on all cars.
“Nobody thinks they are going to leave their child in a vehicle, so why would we put it on only one or two cars?” she said. “We’re really excited to be part of a solution, at least the first step of the solution.”
But more solutions are needed, Fennell said. About 30 percent of all child heatstroke deaths since 1998 have come from children getting trapped inside a car, not being forgotten. Not enough research has been done to determine what exactly is happening in those cases: Are the child locks in the back row keeping kids from getting out?
Do the children get overheated so quickly they get disoriented before trying to escape? Are inside door handles too difficult for them to operate?
Fennell said she’s seen the beginnings of some promising technology that could detect movement inside a car, or sensors that could detect heartbeats or rising internal temperatures.
“When you look at all the other reminders we have in cars, we as consumers have said we’re OK with it,” Fennell said. “What’s more important? Is it the dead battery you get from leaving your headlights on, or is it a child that will die in the car?”
But the thing about human attention spans and memory is that they are finicky things. Patihis cautioned that any chime that sounds too often could become part of people’s habitual memory.
“Once you become habituated to it, you will ignore it,” he said. “Parents would be better off assuming they are going to forget once and doing what they need to do to remind themselves of that every day.”
Since 1998, 686 children have died from heatstroke in cars. Some children have gotten trapped after climbing in on their own; others have been left behind by their caregivers. But not every child trapped in a hot car dies. Some are left with serious disabilities, and others manage to be rescued before anything permanent happens.
Here are stories from three parents who left their children behind.
June 30, 2010; Albuquerque, N.M.
Stephanie Pinon was rushing to a meeting with administrators at her 4-year-old daughter’s preschool to discuss her daughter’s behavior. She believed her other children, including 2-year-old Jahzel, were with her husband. As soon as they pulled into the parking lot, Pinon said 4-year-old Emma unbuckled and hopped out of the car into a busy parking lot, so the mom jumped out after her, swatted her on the behind and headed into the school.
She said she had no idea Jahzel was even in the car.
Roughly two and a half hours later, she came back out to the car to find Jahzel convulsing in her car seat.
“All I could do is scream, “Please, someone, please save my baby,'” Pinon said.
Paramedics later said Jahzel’s body temperature was 110 degrees. She died at the hospital. A distraught Pinon was brought to the police department for questioning and was unaware her daughter died until hours later that day.
“The brain is a powerful organ that we carry around all day, but also the most mysterious,” said Pinon, who has served one year of a five-year probation sentence. “Parents deserve the time to grieve and to be left alone.”
June 13, 2015; Garland, Texas
Eric Stuyvesant had a morning routine that involved dropping his 3-year-old son Michael off at the sitter, then driving his wife to work, then coming home to start his own work day. But on that day, his wife needed to get to work early, so he dropped her off first.
And then, as he usually did, he headed straight home and went into the house to make breakfast. An hour and a half later he had a sinking feeling when he realized he never stopped at the sitter.
He pulled Michael out of the car and dashed for the shower, where he tried to cool Michael’s unresponsive body and gave the boy mouth-to-mouth until the paramedics arrived.
Michael survived, but spent five weeks in the hospital and rehab, learning to eat and walk again.
“I told the officer responding to the call that if I had to do 40 years in prison in exchange for saving my boy’s life, I would do it,” Stuyvesant said. The police department investigated the case before deciding not to press charges.
July 2, 2015; Ocean Springs, Miss.
Allison Werner and her husband, Matt, were visiting Werner’s mom in Ocean Springs with their five children for the July 4 holiday. Werner and her mom were heading to Walmart around 3 p.m. that afternoon, and decided at the last minute to bring along Caleb, Werner’s 14-month-old.
Werner and her mom got to chatting, talking about what they were going to make for dinner and things they might need from the store, and Caleb fell asleep.
The women went into Walmart and took their time, lackadaisically wandering around the store.
“At the checkout counter is when I had this awful feeling, and I realized that Caleb was supposed to be with us,” Werner said. She dashed out of the store, and in her panic couldn’t remember where the car was parked, so she pressed the alarm button on the key fob and followed the sound of the honking horns.
Caleb was fine. A little hot, but fine. A rainstorm had come through while Werner was inside the store, keeping the car cool enough.
“I still am traumatized,” Werner said. “Now when it gets hot I get a paranoid feeling; it brings a new level of fear.”