Since 1994, 804 children have died from heat-related illnesses in cars in the United States, according to Kids and Cars, an advocacy center that conducts research on car-related dangers surrounding child. An average of 37 children die each year after being left in a vehicle.
Undoubtedly, there have been cases where parents intentionally left a child in a vehicle to die, or were somehow negligent. The sad truth is, however, that in the haste of their day, some have honestly forgotten the child was still strapped in the back seat.
Science now backs this fact. Dr. David Diamon, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, told NBC News that he has studied the science behind the situation, and the power struggle that takes place in all human brains regarding memory. Several competing factors come into play when a person plans to do something in the future, yet forgets to complete that plan.
He described these parts working together as a tennis match, in which the basal ganglia (which operates subconsciously) allows a player to hit the ball almost reflexively, while the hippocampus and frontal cortex (which work together to plan future activities and events) allow the player to devise a strategy. The systems compete against each other, with the basal ganglia focusing on getting from Point A to B, to the point that it suppresses the hippocampus. Especially when people follow a strict routine — one that may or may not include dropping off a child at a sitter or daycare center — the brain hits a type of autopilot setting, and the basal ganglia is focused on the overall goal, like getting from work to home, or home to work. In these situations, the child in question is usually sleeping or quiet, and out of sight.
Some might ask, “How could you forget your own child in a vehicle?” How can a human that requires 24-hour care be “forgotten?” But out of sight, out of mind is something every person has experienced. A busy day or wandering head combined with a quiet child hidden in the back seat can create the perfect storm. Because it can happen to anyone, Kids and Cars suggests putting a shoe, briefcase or purse in the back seat to remind adults to look in the back seat before leaving a vehicle.
We might not relate to how or why such tragedies can happen, but hopefully we can work to prevent them from continuing.
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