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BABY’s Death in a Hot Car Stirs Questions

By Jackie Burrell
Friday, June 12th, 2009 at 5:22 pm in Health & Safety.

20040804-CAR-SEAT The case of the 4-month-old baby who died on Monday after being forgotten in a parked car at an El Cerrito BART station is just heartbreaking. Apparently, little Everett Carey’s father forgot to drop him off at day care that morning, and headed off to work without realizing he’d left his baby in the car seat in the back of the car. It wasn’t a hot day by any means – it only reached the high 60s in El Cerrito – but the temperature inside a car soars even when it’s not terribly warm outside. Authorities think it was probably over 100 degrees inside the car.

It’s not the first time this has happened, of course, but it’s heartbreaking every single time. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, each year 27 children die of heat stroke after being left in cars. And it’s happening for a variety of reasons.

“An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy,” Gene Weingarten writes in an extraordinary Washington Post Magazine story, “or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just… forgets a child is in the car.”

And it happens to frazzled people from all walks of life – wealthy, poor, educated, ignorant, absent-minded and uber-organized. Twenty years ago, such cases were a rarity, says Weingarten:

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. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?

Well, anyone under a lot of stress, that’s who. And the sleep-deprived. And anyone coping with a change in routine. Anyone. One’s memory circuits “literally get overwritten, like with a computer program,” says Weingarten. The brain’s higher functions are planning the day, while “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.”

And the baby gets left in the car, unless something triggers your memory – the baby makes a noise, or someone mentions the child sleeping in the back seat, or the child is sitting right there next to you, the way they did back in the 1980s.

So what do we do now? Efforts to mandate back-seat sensors in new cars have died on the vine. There are “aftermarket” sensors out there, but they don’t sell well. And after a NASA colleague’s baby died in a hot car, a trio of engineers developed a keychain alarm that would do the job. They can’t get anyone to manufacture it, says Weingarten, partly because marketing surveys gave it a thumbs down. “The problem is this simple,” he writes. “People think this could never happen to them.”

It can.

Meanwhile here in the newsroom, we’re still talking about the reader who called, distraught over baby Everett’s death in that BART station, to say maybe it’s time to re-think those laws that force parents to put their babies in the back seat. What do you think?

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4 Responses to “BABY’s Death in a Hot Car Stirs Questions”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    Thanks for the pointer to the article, it’s an excellent piece. My first kid rode backwards in the front seat (this was before passenger-side airbags) but her little brothers had to ride in the back. It was a constant worry to me that I might forget them, and also just a huge hassle not being able to see them and easily reach them when they needed something. They cried more since they weren’t able to see me.

    I think passenger-side airbags should always have switches to turn them off so that babies can ride up front, for exactly these reasons. My guess is that putting them in back causes more problems than it solves. My heart goes out to the families who have lost their babies — I’m actually surprised it doesn’t happen more often. There but for the grace of god go I.

  2. Julie Bianchi Says:

    God, that just breaks my heart. You know the father is never going to forgive himself and he will suffer the rest of his life over this.

    Both of my children rode backward in the middle of my backseat. My saving grace was putting a mirror that suctioned to the rear window and pointed toward my children. I then had a small mirror attached to my rearview mirror that pointed to the mirror that was looking at my child. That way, every time I looked in the rearview, which most drivers do constantly, I could see my child.

    As sleep deprived as I was at times, I’m so lucky that never happened to me, but with the stress people are under now days, it really is a wonder it doesn’t happen more often.

    My heart goes out to the family of that baby.

  3. Bob Steffen Says:

    Hi I am Bob Steffen inventor of the car seat monitor. The back seat is the safest place in the car in an accident. The problem is you can’t see the child. We have a product that works. It let’s you know a child is in a car seat whenever the car stops and alert’s you if they get out.

  4. Anara Guard Says:

    It is not true that airbags are the only risk to young children. Child passenger safety experts recommend the back seat for ages up to 12 because it is safest in any kind of crash, whether or not airbags are engaged. Moving children to the front seat is NOT the solution to the problem of adults overlooking children in the back seat. We need education, engineering solutions AND enforcement of laws and policies. Please use extra vigilance when changing schedules and routines.

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