Children and Hot Cars: A Deadly Combination

When summertime arrives, two things you will always see on the news are “Stupid Motorists”, who have to be rescued from driving into flooded streets, and “Stupid Parents”, who lock their children or pets in vehicles in the heat of the day. An average of 37 children die in these conditions each year. Most people would say that parents who do this are mean or too incompetent to have the responsibility of children. Now, science is showing that these “forgetful” parents are truly having a brain lapse.

Since 1994, 804 children have died in America from heat-related illnesses in cars. About 55 percent of those were when the parent was unaware of the child’s presence in the vehicle. Texas leads the nation in child hot car deaths, with four dying just last week in the state.

Dr. David Diamond, a professor of psychology, has studied the science behind the phenomenon of forgetting children in cars. There are several factors competing within the brain. The basal ganglia, the brain center, operates on a subconscious level, allowing the brain to store the “how to ride a bike” and “go on autopilot”. The basal ganglia functions separately from the hippocampus, the part of the brain where awareness and new information are processed. The hippocampus and frontal cortex work together to plan future events.

The systems compete with each other. Basal ganglia gets you from Point A to Point B. Children being left in cars is a result of set habits, like driving from home to work; the parent goes into autopilot mode. The extra stop to drop the child off at daycare is a stop not programmed into the routine, especially when the child is quiet and out of sight. The importance of the forgotten person or item doesn’t matter. It’s all about routine and breaks in the routine that can turn deadly.

It is suggested to use a phone app to set an alert when a child is in the car or putting a purse/briefcase in the backseat. The Hot Cars Act of 2017 would require visual and auditory alerts before the driver exits the vehicle. The technology is already in many American cars in the form of seat belt sensors.
Rosenblatt, Kalhan. “Hot Car Deaths: Scientists Detail Why Parents Forget Their Children.” Storyline. NBCNews, 27 Jun 2017. Web. 27 Jun 2017.

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