It happens, on average, once every nine days in the United States, and it is devastating: A child dies of heatstroke after being left in a parked vehicle. Although there have been cases in which parents are charged with purposely abandoning their kid in the backseat on a hot summer day, most of the time it's well-meaning, loving caregivers who make this honest mistake — and that's why statistics of all the children who have died in hot cars shows that precautions against this are so, so important. As much as some parents believe that they'd never, ever forget about their tiny passengers, that's actually a dangerous mindset that only increases the likelihood of this continuing to happen.
Just last week, a father of a 6-month-old in San Antonio unintentionally left the baby in a car in the parking lot of a San Antonio Walmart while he worked his approximately nine-hour shift there. The incident marked the country's 27th hot car-related death just this year, and is a classic, albeit disturbing, example of just how pervasive of a problem this is.
Between 1990 and 2015, 755 kids died in hot cars, according to KidsandCars.org. Of these, 55 percent were accidentally left in the vehicle by their parents, while another 28 percent entered on their own, meaning they got into the vehicle alone and couldn't get back out.
One of the most highly cited reasons for these accidental instances is a simple change in routine on the parent's part. For example, Aaron Gouveia recounted in a 2014 Time op-ed how he had once inadvertently left his 10-month-old son in the car while running errands during a Massachusetts winter. This happened on a Wednesday, the one weekday when a family member usually watched the baby. One day, though, she didn't come, and that was all it took. When he returned almost immediately to the car in a grocery store parking lot to retrieve a forgotten shopping list, Gouveia realized he had forgotten something much more important as well:
When I realized what else I had forgotten, I learned the true meaning of 'panic attack.' I just stood there, paralyzed by a deeper fear than I have ever known. I could try to sugarcoat it by saying I was sleep-deprived and out of my normal routine—factual statements—but there was no denying another fact: I simply forgot about my son. If not for remembering the grocery list, there is a very good chance my boy would’ve been frozen to death upon my return.
I’m a writer. More specifically, I’m a parent blogger. That means I’ve detailed some very personal and often humiliating stories. Yet it wasn’t until yesterday that I told my wife this happened, and it’s taken six years to get the courage to post it publicly. The shame was just too great.
To prevent this kind of situation from actually killing the young kids who will inevitably fall victim to it in the future (87 percent of those who have died of heat stroke were 3 and younger, according to KidsandCars.org), some advocates are pushing for regulations that would make forgetting a kid in a car more of an anomaly.
"You can't buy a car [today] that doesn't turn your headlights off for you or remind you to turn off your headlights," Janette Fennell, who founded KidsandCars.org, which is a nonprofit, told CNN last year. "And the question just begging to be answered is, who has decided it's more important not to have a dead car battery than a dead baby? And I don't say that to be harsh or sensational. It's just a fact."
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration conducted a study in 2012 that concluded that technology intended to alert drivers that a child was in their backseats when they walked away from vehicles was not reliable at the time. There are a number of low-tech options for ensuring children's safety, though, and adopting them as habits could save kids' lives.
KidsandCars.org recommends stowing necessities like a cellphone in the backseat along with a kids, so that it's necessary to check the back before heading out of the car after parking. It's also a good idea to keep a large stuffed animal in a car seat. When a kid in the the seat, the toy move up front, making for a bold visual reminder. It's also imperative to establish a strict no-show protocol with daycare providers, according to the site: If the kid is absent, the provider should always, always call the parents or guardians to figure out what went wrong.
Leaving kids in cars — even for a short time, even when it's not that hot, even when you can see them — is considered a bad practice. Understanding that even the most vigilant parents can make the potentially deadly mistake of endangering their children this way is the first step in making sure it doesn't happen to you.