Look Before You Lock – It Can Happen To You
It’s summer, and, as dependable as afternoon thunderstorms, come the tragic, heart-wrenching stories of children being left to die in hot cars.
Our family practice doctors at Cohen Medical Associates want you to know that it can happen to any parent, no matter how vigilant they think they are. Every year, an average of 36 children die this way. So far this year, 15 babies and young children have died of heatstroke resulting from being left in hot cars, including the most recent incident last month involving a pair of one-year-old twins in New Jersey.
No one is immune
Although many people shrug off warnings about forgetting children in hot cars, thinking they could never do such a thing, the National Safety Council (NSC) reports that it can happen to anyone at any time, by any-age parent, in any profession, and in all socioeconomic classes.
Almost none of the deaths are intentional, yet often observers blame the parents or caretakers for having been careless or negligent. But the NSC says, “In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, parents are often stressed. Often, tragedies occur when schedules and routines are broken.”
If the mother usually takes the child to school, for example, but the father must fill in from time to time, it’s not part of his regular routine, so he may forget to do so. Or if the mother is rushing around trying to prepare for a child’s birthday party, she may forget to remove the child from the car in the scramble to remember the cake, decorations, and gifts.
“It’s reasonable to call this an epidemic,” memory expert David Diamond, a scientist at the Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida, told CNN. “It happens, on average, once a week from spring to early fall.”
How it happens
He further explained the reasons behind the phenomenon to NBC News. It’s a result of the way our brains function.
“We all experience when we have a plan to do something in the future and then we forget to complete that plan,” he said.
He explained that the part of the brain that operates on autopilot—the part that stores the ability to swim or type or ride a bicycle—is the basal ganglia, which works independently of the hippocampus and the frontal cortex, the parts that pay attention to present events, plan future activities and events, and develop strategies.
“This is where the systems compete against each other,” he told NBC. If you always drive home a certain way, the basal ganglia want to take over, suppressing such information as having a child in the car that normally isn’t there.
“In the case of you driving home, your basal ganglia wants to get you from Point A to Point B to the point it can suppress your hippocampus. [People] say you can forget to stop at the store, but you don’t forget your child is in the car. I get that feeling completely. I get that argument, but you can’t argue with brain function.”
So what can you do to make sure this terrible tragedy never happens to you? The NSC offers the following tips:
- Never leave your child alone in a car, not even for a minute.
- Keep your car locked when you are not in it so kids don’t gain access.
- Create reminders by putting something necessary in the back seat next to your child, such as a briefcase, purse, cellphone, or your left shoe.
- Set a calendar reminder on your electronic device to make sure you dropped your child off at daycare; develop a plan so you will be alerted if your child is late or a no-show.
- If you see a child alone in a car, call 911.
If you have questions about this or any other medical issue, be sure to contact us.