Recent news stories of tragedies when young children were left in hot cars have generated passionate debate in metro Atlanta and across the country.
Certainly any parent who intentionally leaves a child in a hot car to suffer and die should be prosecuted and harshly punished. As a former prosecutor, I find myself wondering whether, if I were the District Attorney in Cobb County, I would seek a sentence harsher than life without parole. Certainly I envy any prosecutor who tries such a case with strong forensic science to back up the charge.
Some people cannot understand how any parent could possibly forget that a child is sleeping in a rear facing infant seat in the back seat of a vehicle. Others reflect on their own incidents of distraction and forgetfulness and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” As a parent for the past 27 years, I am aware of my own fallibility as I recall my moments of horror over lapses of attention when busy or distracted.
Whatever may be determined to be the truth of the recent tragic incident in Cobb County – and it looks increasingly bad — there is a nationwide problem of distracted parents forgetting that children are in a vehicle and unintentionally leaving them subject to extreme summer heat. Parents are especially vulnerable to this when on “automatic pilot” going about a routine that usually does not include the child. If a normal workaday routine is altered, such a change in who drops off or picks up a child at day care, and the child is sleeping in a rear facing carrier in the back seat, it is too easy for even the most loving parent to forget the child is in the vehicle.
When my kids were little, we did not have passenger side air bags forcing child safety seats to the back seat. Our infant seats faced forward rather than backward a quarter century ago. Even when we got that first permanently mounted car phone it was rarely used, so we did not have cell phones buzzing demanding attention as we pulled into a parking space. While life seemed incredibly hectic, in some ways it was a simpler, less distracted time.
Growing up before the days before universal air conditioning, seat belts or child safety seats, I normally stood in the middle of the front seat between my parents while going down the road and endured unabated heat throughout the summer. I was left waiting in a hot car many times with the windows open under a shade tree. It was a different time with a different set of risks.
So when my kids were little, like many people I did not recognize the danger of leaving a child in a car while running even a brief errand.
Back then, I did not realize that the interior of a car can heat up 20 degrees in 10 minutes. Or that even with an outside temperature in the 60s, the interior of a car can reach 110 degrees. I did not know that a child’s body can heat up 7 times faster than an adult, that heat stroke can occur in a car even when the outside temperature is as low as 57 degrees, or that a child will likely die of heat stroke at 107 degrees.
I was lucky. Not everyone’s luck can hold.
- Never leave a child alone in a car, even with the windows partially open. It is certainly tempting to think you can just quickly dash into a store, complete a transaction in a couple of minutes and come right back without the hassle of dealing with kids in a store. But Murphy’s Law is in full force and effect. Anything that can go wrong, sooner or later will go wrong. Even if you are as quick as you expect to be and your child is perfectly safe, a concerned bystander may call 911, setting off a nightmare of dealings with police and Child Protective Services. Just don’t do it. Ever.
- Keep a large stuffed animal in the child seat, and move it to the front passenger seat when you place the child in the seat. This simple visual cue can remind you that the child is in the car when you park.
- Always put the child’s diaper bag in the front passenger seat. Another failsafe visual reminder can help.
- Always put your cell phone, briefcase, purse – or one or both of your shoes — in the back seat. That will force you to always look in the back seat – and see the child if one is there – before leaving the vehicle.
- If you have a change of routine about dropping off a child at day care, establish a pattern of having the other parent — or a grandparent or friend — call to check in after drop-off time. It doesn’t have to be nagging, but a sweet, simple call or text message to ask how the child handled the change of routine can be a valuable backup for fallible parental memory.
- Ask day care to call both parents if the child is not dropped off at the usual time. That backup can save a life. Having been chairman of the board of a church-based child development center, I am confident most would want to help in that way, but they get busy too so that should not be your sole backup.
- Always glance in each seat before leaving the vehicle. If you are retrieving your cell phone, briefcase or purse from the back seat, the visual check will become automatic. Just a quick scan is all it takes.
- Never let children play in and around cars. Heat stroke is only one of the ways kids can get hurt. When I was five, my very caring grandfather left me in his car while he checked on a crew at a construction site. I moved to the driver’s seat to play like I was driving, released the parking brake and rolled downhill into a ditch. Granddaddy was more scared than I was.
- Consider new devices to remind drivers of children in car seats. An 11-year-old in Tennessee invented a simple device for this purpose, made of rubber bands and duct tape. With rising awareness of the problem, I expect entrepreneurs will get other devices to market.
Ken Shigley is a board certified civil trial attorney and past president of the State Bar of Georgia. His Atlanta-based law practice focuses on cases of wrongful death and catastrophic injury, including those involving young children.