Every year as many as 40 children die this way. Most of the children are under the age of two, still buckled up in car seats, which have to be in the back seat and which sometimes, in the case of the youngest victims, are turned to face the back of the seat. Much of the time, the child was not left in the car purposefully (which is obviously a bad thing to do, even if the parent only intends to be away momentarily), but was overlooked somehow.
Many of the cases involve the kind of change in parental routine that's easy to understand. A father might not usually be the one who drops the baby off at the sitter's house or the day care--but today he is supposed to. A stay-at-home-mom always goes to the grocery store alone while Daddy watches the children--but today the eighteen-month-old asked to come along, then fell asleep in his car seat on the way there. Are all of these cases fatal? N0--and that's one reason why we can maintain the comfortable illusion that it only happens to one kind of parent: the bad kind. We never hear about the cases where mom and dad enter the house or the grocery store and realize five minutes later that the infant or toddler is missing.
The one thing that most parents don't want to accept is the one thing that could save children's lives: it could happen to anyone.
Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for his piece on hot car deaths. He describes things this way:
Safety products to help parents double or triple-check to make sure their children have not been left in a car exist, but have not traditionally sold as well as might be expected. They are somewhat expensive, for one thing; they don't all work consistently, and there is that problem of parental belief--the belief that this just can't happen to me.
Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?
The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.
Last year it happened three times in one day, the worst day so far in the worst year so far in a phenomenon that gives no sign of abating.
If you read the Weingarten piece--and again, I don't recommend it for the emotionally sensitive--you'll notice that some of the parents interviewed remembered feeling exactly that way. Until it did happen to them. Until their own child died a terrible death, locked inside a hot car as temperatures soared to inhuman levels. The worst part is that there's a perfectly ordinary, if terrible, explanation as to why. It has to do with the way our memories work, and how easily we can slip into "autopilot," doing something the way we most often do it, even if today is supposed to be different. Most of the time, our tendency to operate on autopilot when we aren't supposed to is harmless, and can even be humorous. People will talk about the way they accidentally turned as though driving to work when they were on their way to Sunday Mass, for instance, or how they inadvertently threw a pair of dirty socks into the garbage instead of the laundry basket. Though we can operate on autopilot at any time, the chances are doing so are raised when we are sleep-deprived, stressed, or have a hard time focusing. Which is exactly the state of mind that parents of infants and toddlers are in, much of the time.
My children aren't babies anymore, but we did talk today about what to do in the extremely unlikely event that they somehow stayed inside a car, and somehow discovered that the door locks were stuck or didn't appear to work. We all agreed that sounding the horn should take precedence over attempting to break the window glass--thought that would remain as an option of last resort.
But for infants and toddlers, even unbuckling the car seat may be something they can't do. Or, if they do manage to get out of the seat, they might not know how to work the door locks, or how to pull open a heavy door. They rely on the adults driving them to get them out of a car safely--which is why anyone who ever drives a baby or toddler anywhere should create a memory device, routine, or trick to help them double check to see if the baby is in the car, every time they get out of it. My girls thought, at first, that the idea of reciting to themselves, if someday they are mothers of babies, something like "Twinkle, twinkle, little star, is everybody out of the car?" before locking the car doors seemed a little silly. But better to feel a little silly than to endure the devastation that forty sets of parents feel each year, when they realize that their baby has died from something that could so easily have been prevented.