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How are children left on school buses? Neuroscientist provides perspective

Unfortunately, instances of school bus drivers and attendants leaving children on a school bus happen all too often. But, David Diamond, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Department of Psychology at the University of South Florida, said other factors besides negligence could contribute to leaving a child behind. Diamond began his presentation at the opening session of STN EXPO Indianapolis by showing a picture of a cockroach on a toothbrush. He explained that if a typical hotel guest ever encounters such a scene, they will vow to never stay there again. He called this a flashbulb memory. However, there are instances in which flashbulb memories are truly traumatic experiences. He noted that most people remember precisely where they were and what they were doing on Sept. 11, 2001, when hijackers used airplanes to strike and topple the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. For over 40 years, Diamond said he has studied the brain, and for 30 of those years, he worked in Veterans Administration hospitals studying memory and PTSD.


Overlooking children isn’t always negligence

After a phone call from a reporter, Diamond switched his focus to researching why people leave children in cars. Diamond cited research indicating that in the two years prior to the pandemic, the number of children who died from being left in cars peaked to about one child a week. He said that while the knee-jerk reaction is that anyone who forgets a child in the backseat is irresponsible, he said it could happen to anyone.
Dr. David Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of South Florida Department of Psychology, spoke on June 5 at STN EXPO INDY 2022
Dr. David Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of South Florida Department of Psychology, spoke on June 5 at STN EXPO INDY 2022.
(Photo courtesy of STN/Vincent Rios Creative.)
Diamond said he then received a phone call from Dr. Joseph Funyak, the senior vice president of transformative products and technologies at IEE Sensing, who told him that school bus drivers are also leaving children behind on buses. According to data collected by the Indiana Department of Education, 50 percent of school bus drivers in the state who missed children on board at the end of routes provided insufficient information as to how the incident occurred. Meanwhile, 30% of the bus drivers stated that they didn’t walk the aisle of the bus, 20% stated they were distracted, and 10% walked the bus but still didn’t see the child. “I am not here to make excuses for irresponsible people,” he said, adding that instead he wants the conversation to focus on memory and perception. He noted that much of human processing is subconscious, and sometimes actions or inactions result in the harm of others.


Coordinating brain functions

He went on to explain the complex relationship between the hippocampus and the basal ganglia parts of the human brain. The hippocampus stores information about where one parked their car, for example, or what they had for breakfast. The basal ganglia governs muscle memory, or one’s autopilot response. Meanwhile, prospective memory is remembering to do something in the future, such as stopping at the store to pick something up on one’s way home from work. An example of a failing prospective memory is leaving a child in the backseat of a car. All the brain functions need to work together, he said. But sometimes the functions compete. He provided the example of leaving a cup of coffee on the roof of one’s car. The hippocampus knows the cup is on the roof, but when distracted, the basal ganglia is activated, which can result in the person leaving the coffee on the roof of the car and driving away. But, he said, when the cup spills on the person’s windshield, the memories start flooding back in. Diamond said that people who left their child in a car report that they lost awareness of their child in the backseat. Maybe the parent doesn’t normally drop the child off at daycare in the mornings, and therefore forgot to stop. Instead, the person goes to work like normal. Then after work, the parent could remember they need to pick the child up from daycare, only to drive all the way to the daycare facility only to find that the child is not there.


Quarter of parents forget about kids

In a survey of parents with children under age 3, nearly 25 percent reported they had forgotten or lost awareness that their child was in the car with them, according to data from the National Lifesavers Conference on Highway Safety Priorities of 2014, Diamond said. Not all of those children are actually left behind, as multiple things have to go wrong, such as the child not making any noise, the parent being distracted, and perhaps being stressed. Regardless, Diamond helped lobby Congress to pass the Hot Cars Act of 2021, which mandates child detection systems in all new cars. He noted that the first step in getting this law to pass was getting lawmakers to realize that it could happen to anyone because of flaws in our brain function. Referring back to the Indiana data, Diamond said there are no excuses for the drivers who didn’t walk the bus. But for the 10 percent of drivers who said they walked the bus but didn’t see the child, he noted that sometimes we don’t see something unless we expect to see it.


Looking without seeing

For example, perception is influenced by prior experience. “Inattentional blindness” is the term for looking without seeing. Diamond explained that research shows that people rarely see what they are looking at unless their attention is directed to it. This, he said, can have life-and-death consequences. He then asked attendees to think back to the picture of the cockroach on the toothbrush that he showed at the outset of his presentation, and he asked if they recalled what number was in the corner of the frame. No one in the audience could answer the question because they were focused on the cockroach. “What we focus on is what we remember,” he said. “Even though something else is in our scene.” Todd Watkins, the former transportation director of Montgomery County Public Schools, said he has a video of a driver walking the bus but missing a sleeping child. The video could be used as a training tool to show other drivers that this could happen to them. Diamond noted that sometimes experienced drivers could be the one to miss a child, as it’s routine to walk the bus and not see anyone, so they aren’t expecting the child. Two transportation employees at the Osceola County School District in Florida told School Transportation News following the presentation that they had a 20-year-veteran driver forget a child. Diamond concluded by stating that everyone needs to be aware of how their brain functions, but repeated that there is no excuse for lazy and irresponsible drivers who don’t walk the bus. Adriana Fracasso, the coordinator of transportation, said the talk was amazing and pertained to their current situation. She noted that she’s going to emphasize the importance of training and being aware. Plus, she said, admitting that leaving a student on the bus could happen to anyone is something she is taking back to her district.
Reprinted with permission from School Transportation NewsRead the original post.
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