child carseatOnly a monstrous parent would intentionally leave a child in a hot car for hours to suffer and die. While that is the allegation in a pending murder case in Georgia, even if proven true it would be aberrational.

But every summer we hear of a rash of incidents in which a distracted, multitasking parents, usually functioning outside their normal routine, forgets a child sleeping in the back seat. The results are tragic — death or brain damage due to heat stroke. On average, 37 children die in this way in the US every year.

It can happen even to loving, caring, normally competent parents who thought this could never happen to them, but then become distracted.

Why has this become a common phenomenon in recent times? It is largely due to a string on unintended consequences. During the ‘90s that laws began requiring children ride in car seats, facing toward the rear, in the back seat, where they were safer but also more easily forgotten. About the same time, cell phones proliferated, providing another source of distraction for overstressed, multitasking parents.

There have been many suggestions in the media for parents to prevent such tragedies:

  • Put something in the back seat –  handbag or briefcase, cellphone or employee badge.
  • Keep a brightly colored stuffed animal in the car seat, and switch it to the front passenger seat when you put the child in the car seat.
  • Ask someone to call you 10 minutes after your expected arrival time to make sure you didn’t forget the child.
  • Always look in the back seat when you get out of the car, just in case.
  • Rig up mirrors to always have the child in view.
  • Development of auto or cell phone app technologies to back up parental memories.

None of these suggestions are foolproof. When I think of the times I left my cell phone or briefcase in the car, the times I intended to call my wife at a certain time, my own fallibility in remembering to look somewhere at a certain time, I realize how vulnerable busy parents are. While it has been a long time since I had small children, and they were out of child seats by about 1993 — before child seats had to be in rear-facing in the rear and before we all carried a smart phones in our pockets — I can easily imagine having a momentary but tragic lapse of mind.

So what do I suggest? Something simple, low tech, foolproof and easily made into a habit.

When you put a child in the car, take off one of your shoes, put your cell phone in that shoe, and place it next to the child seat. You will not leave the car without the shoe, and thus not without the child, and you will not be on the cell phone while driving.

leftshoeMake it a habit, each and every time you put your child in the car, and while you are totally focused on the adorable child you love so much, lovingly take off one shoe. Lovingly put it on the floor or seat by the child. Lovingly put your cell phone in the shoe.

Then no matter how long the drive, how quietly the child sleeps or how distracted you may become in thoughts about the 4,736 things on your “to do” list, when you step out of the car with one shoe off and one shoe on, you will remember to get the child out of the car. Nobody is so distracted as to walk away with one shoe. On hot summer weekends, I often drive barefoot (perfectly legal in all states and safer than driving in flipflops), but I never forget my shoes when I reach my destination; if nothing else, hot asphalt reminds me.

While we still are looking forward to the possibility of grandchildren someday, we are prepared with the shoe in the back seat trick when the time comes.


Ken Shigley, a double board certified trial lawyer in Atlanta, Georgia. He has served as president of the State Bar of Georgia, chair of the largest practice area section of the American Association for Justice (Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section), and chair of the Institute for Continuing Legal Education in Georgia board of trustees. He is lead author ofGeorgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice (2010-2016) and a chapter author of the 2016 edition of Handling Motor Vehicle Accident Cases, both published by Thomson Reuters.    Ken Shigley is a candidate for election to the Georgia Court of Appeals in 2018.