Why Children Keep Dying In Hot Cars And How It Can Be Stopped
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Every summer, young kids die in a way that is easily preventable. Yesterday in a suburb of Dallas, a father apparently left his 9-month-old girl in a hot car. Last week in the Bronx, 1-year-old twins died the same way after they were left in a car. Sharon Otterman of The New York Times has written about why this keeps happening and what can be done about it.
Welcome to the program.
SHARON OTTERMAN: Thank you so much.
SHAPIRO: People often describe these as cases where parents are negligent. You've looked closely at the circumstances surrounding some of these deaths. And I wonder whether you think negligence is the right word.
OTTERMAN: I think probably in some cases, there's negligence. But I think the majority of these cases, the parents somehow forget that the child's in the car, just in the same way that the parent might forget to stop at the grocery store on the way home.
SHAPIRO: Some of this has to do with the way that human memory works, and you talked with experts who study these cases. What did they tell you about the psychology involved in this?
OTTERMAN: You know, I think we all know that, especially working parents, when you're under stress, when you're sleep deprived, your memory might not be functioning the way you wish it were. And that is exacerbated when you're doing something habitual, like driving to work every day in the same route. When there's a change in routine, sometimes the parent will forget to do the change and go back to the original autopilot routine that they're used to. In a lot of these cases - and this is what's shocking about it - in more than 200 cases in the last two decades or so, parents have literally forgotten about their younger child and gone and brought their older child to a day care setting and forgotten the younger one is in the car. They sort of reverted to the old pattern that they remember from years ago.
SHAPIRO: And as you describe it, in many cases when they realize the horror of what has actually happened, they have a vivid memory of having dropped the child off at day care, which they obviously didn't because the child was in the car for hours or perhaps all day.
OTTERMAN: Yeah. And that was one of the most interesting things about this. Parents are actually creating a false memory of actually doing what they intended to do. And often, the parents will actually go back to the day care or call the other parent to pick up the child at the day care when in fact they had forgotten to do it altogether, and the children had been in the car.
SHAPIRO: Prosecutors handle these cases very differently. Tell us about the range of ways that parents in these situations have been treated.
OTTERMAN: Sometimes you have prosecutors who look at this situation and realize it was just this horrible, tragic mistake. Sometimes you have prosecutors who look at the situation and say, wait a minute, is there something wrong here? Could the parent have been on drugs? Was there some extenuating circumstances that led to this parent's forgetting? And, you know, the people who study this do recommend that prosecutors look into the circumstances of the death. There is always that small chance that the parent somehow was negligent or the parent had even intended to kill the child. But it is a small subset of the number of children that have died in this way, according to the people who study this.
SHAPIRO: People have invented technologies that would prevent at least some of these deaths. Why aren't they in more common use?
OTTERMAN: One of the reasons that technologies are not more in use is that nobody thinks that this is going to happen to them. And so they don't pay the extra money that it would take to install an optional technology or pay extra money for some kind of smart car seat that might send out an alert. And that's why the people who advocate for change are asking for legislation to make the installation of this kind of technology mandatory.
SHAPIRO: Apart from technological innovations, is there anything that a parent listening to this conversation could do to make sure that this doesn't happen to them?
OTTERMAN: One thing that many of the readers have recommended is taking something that you absolutely need for work and putting it in the back seat with the child. So I know it sounds crazy, but you might forget to drop your child off at day care, but you're probably not going to forget to take your cellphone if it's in the backseat, or take your purse. That doesn't mean that your cellphone or purse are more important to you. It's just that you're reverting back to that regular pattern when you always take your cellphone and purse, and you might just not expect to have the child in the car. And there have been, even, readers that have written to us and said that they did that and that, actually, they were shocked to see their 6-month-old in the car seat.
So I think this happens more often than we think. The reason that it's fatal is when it's hot outside - and actually, it doesn't even have to be so hot. It can be 70 degrees out, and that gets hot enough for a infant in the car. It could even be 65 degrees. So you see this much more often in warm-weather states. For example, it's happened 130 times, according to the people who study this, in Texas, but only about nine times in the state of New York.
SHAPIRO: Sharon Otterman of The New York Times, thank you for your reporting and for speaking with us about it.
OTTERMAN: Thank you so much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.