Why parents who forget children in hot cars aren't monsters.
You could fill at least two preschool classrooms with the number of children who die each year after being left in the back seats of sweltering cars. The latest child in Florida to die this way — and one of 30 across the country so far this year — was Lawson Whitaker, a 23-month-old boy with blond curls and a sweet grin from Palm Harbor, just west of Tampa. He died in his family's truck, likely from heatstroke, after his father forgot to drop him off at day care and didn't notice what he had done until the end of the day. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office charged Lawson's dad, a firefighter, with aggravated manslaughter. People often say parents who forget their children in cars are monsters. But I have talked with experts who say the brain science behind forgetting a child in a car seat isn't all that different from momentarily forgetting a cup of coffee placed on the roof of a car — as crude of a comparison as that may be. I have talked with a mother who told me how it happened to her. Through tears and still-raw pain, she recounted how she left her 5-month-old son in his car seat after dropping her older child off at school in 2009. She didn't know anything was wrong until she left her office at the end of the day, walked out to her car and saw her baby lifeless in the back seat. Temperatures inside the car reached as high as 120 degrees that day. "It was a Thursday, and I was going to take Friday off and see one of my girlfriends from college," she told me when I interviewed her last year. "We were talking, and I was sending her pictures of [the baby]. He was on my brain all day long. But he was at day care, and there was nothing in my brain that told me otherwise." In many of these cases, like the one of this mother and possibly the Tampa-area firefighter, the people aren't monsters. Now Congress has the chance to see that, too. And, even more important, do something that could actually save the life of a child. Last week a group of bipartisan representatives introduced a bill to eventually require car manufacturers to install a rear seat alert system in new vehicles. The bill, the first of its kind, sets a two-year deadline for the U.S. Department of Transportation to come up with a final rule for manufacturers on an alarm system. At least one carmaker, General Motors, has already acted. A rear seat alert system will come standard in the 2017 GMC Acadia. The reminder system works by monitoring the Acadia's rear doors. If a rear door is opened and closed within 10 minutes of the vehicle starting or while it is running, a series of five chimes sounds and a message is displayed on the instrument cluster once the vehicle arrives at the destination and is turned off. It's not a perfect system. For example, if a parent put a baby in the Acadia's backseat and then stops to get gas, the chime would sound when the vehicle is turned off at the gas station. But the chime would not reset again for the final destination unless the rear doors are opened again. There is other technology available that monitors occupied car seats through weight, movement or even a child's breathing. The systems are out there; it's just a matter of making them standard such as alarms for headlights left on or unbuckled seat belts. "These are horrible, preventable tragedies," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois who is co-sponsoring the bill. "The technology exists to prevent these deaths. You get a warning if you forget your keys in the ignition. You should get a warning if you forget your child in the back seat." I've said before that I'm sympathetic to the notion that parents shouldn't need technology to remind them of their own child. But if the technology is available, there's simply no reason not to use it. Heatstroke is a leading killer of kids in cars aside from traffic accidents. Nearly 800 children have died this way since 1990, including more than 70 in Florida, according to KidsAndCars.org, a leading advocacy group for the rule change. "We really need this to happen," said Janette Fennell, founder and president of the group. On Thursday, the same day the bill was introduced in Congress, a 1-year-old boy died in Dayton, Texas, after being left in his car seat while his mother was at work — less than a week after little Lawson died the same way in Palm Harbor.