Skip to main content
Back to Latest News

BWW Review: Susan Morgan Cooper's Riveting Expose On Hot Car Deaths: FATAL DISTRACTION

A compelling exposé of the tragedy of hot car deaths, a trial, and available solutions to avoidable harm

By Herbert Paine

Child vehicular heatstroke. Since 1990, 940 children in the United States have died in hot cars. The average number of deaths per year: 39 or one every 9 days! (Source:

If you are among those who are appalled by these staggering statistics and who find it inconceivable and unforgivable that a parent would abandon their child in a hot car to die, think and feel again...just as I did...after watching FATAL DISTRACTIONSusan Morgan Cooper's gripping documentary on a national crisis that begs for resolution.

In a March 2009 Washington Post feature article (Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?) that earned him a Pulitzer Prize, Gene Weingarten opened the door of understanding about the complexities of this issue. The article, covering the harrowing experiences of several couples whose children perished in a hot car and offering scientific explanations for the problem, in turn, reenforced the advocacy of practical initiatives to prevent the occurrence of these family tragedies.

It takes a special kind of insight and film making prowess ~ and conscience ~ to translate the emotional magnitude of such losses. Cooper, an acclaimed documentary film director and producer (Mirjana- One Girl's JourneyAn Unlikely WeaponTo the Moon and Back) has done just that in her latest work, FATAL DISTRACTION.

As is the case in her earlier films, Cooper delivers a compelling and multi-layered work that, in Weingarten's terms, challenges our concepts of crime, punishment, and mercy.

At one level, the film focuses on the 2016 prosecution and conviction in Cobb County, Georgia of Justin Ross Harris for the death (two years earlier) of his 22-month-old son, Cooper. Harris was sentenced to life in prison without parole after a jury found him guilty of intentionally leaving Cooper inside his SUV, strapped in a rear-facing car seat.

At the same time, the story revolves around the experience of the mother left alone, sans child.

If one can say that a documentary has a star, then Leanna Harris, Cooper's mother, is the centerpiece of this film, sharing with astonishing candor and intensity her version of the events from the time of the tragedy to the subsequent trial of her ex-husband. Her pain is palpable and her passion for justice is inspiring.

Alexandra Cooper's camera captures the emotion and indomitable spirit of this grieving mother while footage assembled from the days of despair (home movies, the discovery of the child, the harrowing interrogation of the father, the notification of the mother) interweaves and conveys the agonizing trajectory of dismay, grief, and despair.

On another level, there is a clear point of view in this film regarding Harris's trial ~ that it was a travesty of justice, facilitated by deficiencies in the investigative process and aggravated further by the court-TV circus with which we've become all too familiar that sensationalizes a trial, passes summary judgment on the accused, and revels in its own sense of self-importance. The viewer cannot help but be appalled by the TV footage of such flagrant violators of decency as Nancy Grace and Jane Velez-Mitchell who mercilessly indict the objects of their indignation.

Cooper counters with ample evidence of what she concludes are the failures of a legal system gone awry that allowed a man to be wrongfully convicted for what science would judge an accident.

To her credit ~ and here is a third level that defines the importance of the film ~ she bolsters her case with testimonials from other couples who have endured similar circumstances and, most importantly, with explanations from experts who provide critical perspectives on why such tragedies occur.

We learn about the irony of technological change ~ the results of equipping cars with air bags and thus shifting children from the front seat of the car to the rear and then in car seats positioned out of the driver's view. We learn that a simple solution exists ~ the placement by auto manufacturers of car warning systems or hot car sensors ~ that amazingly has been opposed by the U.S. Auto Alliance and the Association of Global Automakers.

We learn from Dr. David Diamond, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of South Florida and a leading expert on memory lapse, the gut-wrenching incidents covered in the film reflect flaws of human brain processing that could and should be mitigated by the above proposed technological applications.

The documentary has deservedly prompted discussion on the issue of hot car deaths on programs on major media channels, NBC, CBS, ABC.

This is an important film, one that merits greater exposure and viewing...and a considerable amount of public discussion and legislative action. We need lose no more children because of avoidable tragedies. Thanks to Cooper, we better understand that truth.

Photo credit: Leanna Taylor

Fatal Distraction ~ ~ ~ 213-447.9904

For information regarding the HOT CARS ACT, go to

Scroll to top of page