Leaving Infants in the Car
It happens; sometimes they die.
"Death by hyperthermia" is the official designation. When it happens to young children, the facts are often the same: An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just... forgets a child is in the car. It happens that way somewhere in the United States 15 to 25 times a year, parceled out through the spring, summer and early fall.
It's a fascinating piece of reporting, with some interesting security aspects. We protect against a common risk, and increase the chances of a rare risk:
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.
There is a theory of why we forget something so important: dropping off the baby is routine:
The human brain, he says, is a magnificent but jury-rigged device in which newer and more sophisticated structures sit atop a junk heap of prototype brains still used by lower species. At the top of the device are the smartest and most nimble parts: the prefrontal cortex, which thinks and analyzes, and the hippocampus, which makes and holds on to our immediate memories. At the bottom is the basal ganglia, nearly identical to the brains of lizards, controlling voluntary but barely conscious actions.
Diamond says that in situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of auxiliary autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant but efficient basal ganglia is operating the car; that's why you'll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made or the scenery you saw.
There are technical solutions:
In 2000, Chris Edwards, Terry Mack and Edward Modlin began to work on just such a product after one of their colleagues, Kevin Shelton, accidentally left his 9-month-old son to die in the parking lot of NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The inventors patented a device with weight sensors and a keychain alarm. Based on aerospace technology, it was easy to use; it was relatively cheap, and it worked.
Janette Fennell had high hopes for this product: The dramatic narrative behind it, she felt, and the fact that it came from NASA, created a likelihood of widespread publicity and public acceptance.
That was five years ago. The device still isn't on the shelves. The inventors could not find a commercial partner willing to manufacture it. One big problem was liability. If you made it, you could face enormous lawsuits if it malfunctioned and a child died. But another big problem was psychological: Marketing studies suggested it wouldn't sell well.
The problem is this simple: People think this could never happen to them.
There's talk of making this a mandatory safety feature, but nothing about the cost per lives saved. (In general, a regulatory goal is between $1 million and $10 million per life saved.)
And there's the question of whether someone who accidentally leaves a baby in the car, resulting in the baby's death, should be prosecuted as a criminal.
EDITED TO ADD (4/14): Tips to prevent this kind of tragedy.
Posted on March 17, 2009 at 1:10 PM • 152 Comments