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Child's death in car in Dayton coincides with call for new safety measure

By Mike Snyder
The Houston Chronicle, September 22, 2016 
Updated: September 23, 2016 10:53am

The 2017 GMC Acadia comes equipped with a system reminding drivers to check the rear seat.

The 2017 GMC Acadia comes equipped with a system reminding drivers to check the rear seat. I was just a few blocks from the house when I remembered I no longer lived there. I had recently moved to a place just a few miles from my previous residence. But on this particular afternoon, my mental navigation system seemed to be on autopilot, directing me toward my old house. I put it down to advancing age. But I now realize I may have experienced a variation on a mental process that results, with terrible frequency, in parents or other caregivers leaving children locked in automobiles to die. "The brain creates a false memory that their plan to take their child to day care has actually been accomplished," said David Diamond, a molecular physiology professor who has spent 12 years studying fatal memory errors involving children and cars. Stress, multitasking and sleep-deprivation - sound familiar, parents of young children? - can exacerbate the problem, he says. Perhaps something like this happened last week to Jodie Kennemer, whose 1-year-old son, Jack, died in her car while she went about her workday as an attorney for the Pasadena school district. Kennemer even drove back more than 30 miles to the Kreative Kids Learning Center in the Liberty County town of Dayton to pick up her son, unaware that his lifeless body was strapped into the car seat behind her, according to police who came to the scene. If that seems hard to believe, consider what happened to Miles Harrison in 2008 in Virginia. Harrison walked right past his car in the parking lot of his workplace that July day on the way to lunch with his boss. Hours later, a colleague asked him: "Hey, do you have a doll in your car?" Only then did Harrison realize he hadn't dropped his son, Chase, at day care. The 21-month-old boy died of heatstroke. It's a remarkably common story. Kennemer's son was the 30th child in the U.S., and the seventh in Texas, to die while locked in a hot car this year, according to the advocacy group On Sept. 15, the same day Kennemer's son died, Diamond and Harrison spoke at a news conference announcing the filing of federal legislation that could help protect children from the same fate. The law would require automakers to equip vehicles with technology that would remind drivers to check the back seat - much as our cars remind us now that our seat belts aren't buckled, a door is ajar, or our headlights are on. You can buy a vehicle with this equipment today - the warning system is standard equipment on the 2017 GMC Acadia. But activists' recent experience with a similar effort suggests that the fight to require this technology will not be easy.

Help for the overtaxed
In 2008, Congress passed a law ordering transportation officials to research technology that would reduce the blind zones behind backing vehicles. But as my colleague Susan Carroll reported, a rule proposed in 2010 to implement the law stalled amid concerns over the cost. The government finally issued the rule in 2014, and all new cars will have to have backup cameras by mid-2018 - 10 years after the law passed. A similar delay on the back-seat warning technology could mean the deaths of many children. But one of the biggest barriers is the widespread attitude that warning systems wouldn't be necessary if parents simply acted responsibly, said Janette Fennell, the founder of Everyone thinks, "This could never happen to me" - until it does. "Children will continue to die in hot cars unless something is done to help our overtaxed brains," Fennell said. In Dayton, police said Thursday they are still investigating the death of Jack Torrence Kennemer. Prosecutors sometimes bring charges in such cases; a judge in Virginia acquitted Miles Harrison of involuntary manslaughter. That doesn't mean he has avoided punishment. "The daily beating I give myself is far more brutal than anything I have read about myself on the internet," Harrison said at the news conference.

Quick to judge
I stopped by the Dayton day care center the other day, parking in the same lot where 29-year-old Jodie Kennemer experienced the worst moment of her life. It's a nondescript building surrounded by a wooden fence with small sculptures of flowers and butterflies hanging over the entryway. The kids were having lunch when I walked in, the room abuzz with the babble of preschoolers. It's a reassuring, life-affirming sound. Our urge to protect the youngest of our species is evolutionary, and we can be quick to judge when a mom or dad forgets their own child in the back seat of a car. But condemnation will not protect a single child. A simple warning system in our cars could save many. This shouldn't be a hard decision.

Mike Snyder Greater Houston columnist

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