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March 07, 2009

Fatal lapses: Parents who forget their kids in hot cars

Gene Weingarten has a gut wrenching investigative piece in the Washington Post today about parents tormented by guilt for having forgotten their children to die of hyperthermia in their car seats.

About 15-25 kids die this way each year in the United States.  Some of these fatalities are attributable to parental negligence; but Weingarten's thirteen subjects were, by all accounts, loving and responsible mothers and fathers who simply got distracted at the worst possible moment.

These generally responsible parents present a quandary for the legal system. About 40% of the time, the authorities conclude that the death was a tragic accident and don't press charges. Prosecutors conclude that since there was no criminal intent, there was no crime.

In the remaining 60% of cases the parents face criminal charges ranging from manslaughter to second degree murder. The tacit assumption is that anyone responsible for such a senseless death must have somehow been culpably negligent.

You might think that only a monster or an idiot could forget their own child in a car all day. But Weingarten marshals evidence from experimental and clinical psychology to explain how an otherwise attentive parent can suffer such a catastrophic lapse. Often, the caregiver is multitasking, sleep-deprived, or adjusting to a change in routine.

The story is quite long, but I encourage you to read all the way to the end. There's an incredible payoff.

Weingarten's piece is an example of the kind of old-fashioned investigative story that most papers can't afford to fund anymore. Kudos to the Post for making the investment.


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That article is not for the faint hearted. I'm familiar with Weingarten's humor pieces from when he took over the back of the Washington Post Magazine after Dave Barry retired. Cleary Weingarten is not just a gifted humorist; he's a superb writer, period.

This the sort of thing I dread doing. I recall being left in the car, with my sister, but were older, between 8-10 when it was done. If we got too hot, we got out of the car.

It would never be done today ("someone might steal the child) even if it weren't dangerous. But yes, I've lost things, and misplaced the bridle; not had a clip in the snake's cage etc.

A moment of being lost in thought and disaster strikes.

Even the brief treatment Dennett gave this in Freedom Evolves sent chills down my spine. The article was incredible, thanks.

Reading the comments following the WaPo article, it's dismaying to see how many people are so cocksure of their own memory and focus that they cannot imagine themselves the instrument of such a tragic failure. Who among us has not had a close call when we forgot to shut off a valve, reset an alarm, move a gas can?

The car manufacturers refusal to do anything is lame. There are already sensors that tell you when someone is in a car seat without a belt on. Tweaking them to work in this capacity couldn't be too difficult. They've filled cars with every other sort of useless bells and whistles. Refrigerator doors had latches replaced with magnetic strips after kids suffocated in them. Car seats can't be changed?

Before we discovered that air bag problem that could kill kids in the front seats, kids weren't always relegated to the rear seats. But rather than fixing the air bag problem in a timely manner, parents let themselves be bossed into putting the kid in the back. Besides the huge change that's made to parent/child conversation on car trips, it looks like we have another unintended consequence on our hands.

I can understand the momentary impulse to condemn, but I can't understand how any of these cases were brought to prosecution.

Stunning article. thanks for the pointer.

I really wish that I hadn't read that article. Ugh.

That was a really harrowing piece. I stumbled across it, then couldn't stop reading. The pain and self-mortification these people go through is unthinkable. The Wandering Jew lives of self-flagellation some of them lead afterwards are heartbreaking. And the unbelievable - but all too familiar - nastiness and self-righteousness that some people heap on them, from the vicious DA who tried to give one woman 40 years, to the newspaper letter writers with their nasty, critical, often sexist remarks, are dispiriting. But the article is a tremendous piece of deeply human and empathic reporting. And you're right - the shocker at the very end left me sobbing.

>And the unbelievable - but all too familiar - nastiness and self-righteousness that some people heap on them...

That's hiding in a lot of people. You see it in political infighting pile-ons, or the bogeyman-fear of stranger-danger modern parents obsess over. It's why people will spend 100x as much energy fighting dangers that involve a person to blame, yet ignore ways to save far more lives from dangers that aren't personified.

Some people fixate on objects to dump their buried anger and shame on. It's cathartic, but very selfish.

"He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it." - Moby Dick


Thanks for the WaPo link. I won't repeat some of the comments already made. There are three points I would like to contribute, though.

1. There could be a significant element of ADD, specifically, Inattentive ADD. This is distinct from Hyperactive ADD. Inattentive ADD has the paradoxical characteristics of failing to sustain focus or awareness, on the one hand, and hyperfocusing to the exclusion of everything else. About 25 years ago there was a news story that went like this. A father took his child, strapped in a car seat baby carrier, on an errand. He put his child, still in the car seat carrier, on the roof of his car while he searched for his keys and put a couple of items in the car. He drove off with his child still on the roof of his car. Fortunately, other motorists were able to alert the father and he stopped safely with no injury to his child.

2. It's difficult to do research on events that have low frequency. "About 15-25 kids die this way each year in the United States." This is akin to studying car crashes at a particular intersection. The solution to this problem, from a research point of view, is to study near misses which are many fold greater than hypothermia deaths of children, or car crashes at an intersection. The example, above, is a near miss. Parents who realized they forgot to check on their children in a car, and then return to their car to find their unharmed children, would constitute a much larger population for study.

3. [Acknowledgment to cfrost]. There may be solutions to the problem with the application of current technologies. One thing that comes to mind is triggering an OnStar alert that summons help. Another is a baby monitor-type communication of voice, text, and video directly to a family member. For example, my fasten seat belt alert does not come on unless I am seated in the driver's seat. The passenger side airbag is not activated unless a person of sufficient heft is occupying the seat. Now add interior temperature, exterior temperature, momentum, static and elapsed time, door lock and window positions, GPS stats, and engine status. With that information, any tech savvy high school senior can define an algorithm in no time flat. Response activations could include the OnStar and baby monitor mentioned above. They could also include audible car alarms ("Warning, child or small animal in hot car."), AC/fan activation with automatic engine start and enable vent to outside, 'cracking' of windows, and disabling door locks. The electronics and controls infrastructure are already there. All we need is an additional amount of software code.

From the last page of the article: Hickling is a clinical psychologist from Albany, N.Y., who has studied the effects of fatal auto accidents on the drivers who survive them. He says these people are often judged with disproportionate harshness by the public, even when it was clearly an accident, and even when it was indisputably not their fault. Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.

We want an empathic universe, a world that makes sure nothing bad happens to good people, a world with Gods who look out for us, guardian angels who keep watch over us. If there is no god, no guardian angels, no empathic sentient universe, then that means that we are fundamentally alone. And if there is one thing most humans don't like is to be alone.

With an empathic world, bad things only happen when people are bad. There is no such thing as an accident. If you're good, the world looks out for you. Only if you're bad does the world allow bad things to happen to you.

This menatality explains the venom people direct at those who have forgotten their child in their car. It actually explains quite a lot about society. And it isn't pretty.


I can believe in meaning without punishing people for mistakes. A handful of internet commentators do not stand in for all people of faith, everywhere.

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