How Can I Make Sure I Won’t Leave My Baby in my Car?

That’s the question we parents need to ask ourselves upon reading this:

“A researcher says 18 children have died of hyperthermia since the beginning of the year, with eight deaths reported since June 13. That’s the largest number of fatalities through the first half of a year since Jan Null, an adjunct professor of meteorology at San Francisco State University, began tracking the data in the late 1990s.”

Not all of these deaths resulted from forgetfulness. Some were the result of unsupervised children accidentally locking themselves inside cars that had been left unlocked, then dying before anyone discovered them there. This is a good argument for not leaving your car unlocked, no matter how “safe” you like to pretend your cute little town is.

But most of these deaths are the result of people accidentally leaving babies in the car. The usual scenario is that the baby has fallen asleep, and-because of a change in routine or preoccupation with something else (like, say, the performance review someone has to discuss with a boss later that day)-the distracted parent or other caregiver goes into a store, a house, or a workplace.

And unfortunately, it doesn’t take much heat or time for the worst to happen.

Babies and young children are terrible at dealing with heat, compared to adults. It’s because they have so much less surface area through which to shed it.

Mix that with the fact that the temperature inside a closed-up car can rise as much as 29 degrees in as few as 20 minutes (according to this study), and you can see the recipe for disaster even on what might feel like a cool breezy day.

I guess this is why the fireman didn’t hesitate very long before breaking the window. I still remember watching this scene, as a small child myself, in the parking lot of the local post office, where I’d gone on an errand with my father.

A young mother had locked her baby in her car and all the windows were up. Fortunately, she hadn’t forgotten about her baby, but she’d locked her keys inside the car and didn’t have a spare. (Hey, why not make sure you have one in your wallet right now?)

One of the firefighters was trying to slim-jim the door but wasn’t getting anywhere. Another firefighter, who clearly understood the stakes a little better, walked back to the fire truck and came back with a hammer.

The natural tendency, when we learn of terrible mistakes made by other people, is to look for reasons why those people are idiots and, therefore, we would never make the same mistakes.

You’ll notice this tendency anytime you are present for a discussion of someone who has gotten lost in the woods, swept away by a flood, eaten by a bear, bitten by a shark, and on and on. Faced with a terrifying, unpredictable world, we like to believe we’re more in control than we really are, so-by implication-when terrible things happen to other people, we like to believe that anyone in that situation would have had the power to avoid it. Therefore, it’s the victim’s fault when he or she couldn’t. (What else explains the pleasure of watching horror movies whose main characters seem too stupid to even dress themselves?)

This victim-blaming tendency is immediately visible in the comments responding to the article I quoted at the beginning of this column:

  • “My kid is always in my mind, so I don’t understand forgetting.”
  • “How in the hell does some one forget that a child is in the car with them, if your mind is that far gone you need not be driving with a child in the car.”
  • “These are total f*ing idiots!!! HOW CAN YOU DO THIS???!!!!”
  • “How the F#&$^ can it be harder to remember your CHILD than your stupid phone?”
  • Having reassured themselves that they are not the kind of idiot that could leave a kid in a car, these commenters will now go about their business.

    Think it couldn’t happen to you, either?

    Enjoy thinking that. Meanwhile, I’m going to think about something a little more useful: how to decrease the chances that it could. Because I’m of the opinion that any human who puts a baby in a car is at risk of forgetting it there.

    So, how do we do it? How can we make sure we don’t leave our babies in a hot car?

    Here are the suggestions from the article:

    “Safety groups such as Kids and Cars and Safe Kids USA urge parents to check the back seat every time they exit the vehicle and to create a reminder system for themselves. Some parents leave their cell phone or purse on the floor near the car seat to ensure they retrieve it along with the child. Others remind themselves by placing a stuffed animal in the car seat when the child isn’t using the seat and putting the toy in the front seat when the child is tucked in the car seat.”

    I’ve also heard of keeping a clothespin or something similar attached to the kid’s car seat. When the kid goes in, the clothespin goes somewhere that will help you remember the kid, such as on your visor, on the door handle, or maybe on your nipple.

    Whatever you do, the most important thing is to pay attention: to how your mind works; to how your spouse’s mind works; and to situations that increase the chances of something like this happening (e.g., when a different person than usual drives the baby to day care).

    Probably the most important thing is not to decide that it could never happen to you.

    I’m betting that none of those 18 parents mentioned at the beginning of this column ever thought it could happen to them, either.