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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

When a Change in Routine Proves Deadly: Children Left in Hot Cars

I'm not writing this post to gratuitously share my horror that children are sometimes accidentally left to die in closed cars on warm or hot days. I write, rather, in the hope that by sharing what I've read about how these tragedies occur, I just might reduce the chance of another.

Parents who leave children in cars for prolonged periods aren't necessarily thoughtless, irresponsible, neglectful, or uncaring parents. But like the rest of us, they are creatures of habit. Few of us drive to work consciously keeping track of the distance to the first right turn, or reminding ourselves to drive 3 and a half miles past the bridge before crossing the railroad tracks. We do these things automatically, as part of our daily routine. Working parents with children in day care include dropping off the child as part of such a routine. A common thread in many heartrending accounts is the departure from the usual way of delivering a child to the day care center, or Grandma's house, or wherever the child is supposed to spend the day. A parent who routinely drives straight to work is instead assigned the task of taking the child somewhere first.

The problem, the terrible stumbling block, is that making the single decision to do something differently may not be enough to overcome the force of routine. A few minutes after the child has been tucked into a car seat, the parent can fall back into the automatic sequence of usual events. If the child falls asleep or is otherwise quiet, and especially if the parent has work-related matters on his or her mind, s/he may drive to work, lock the car, and head on in without remembering the child was ever in the car. It may take a frantic phone call to flood the parent's mind with recollection. And that call may come too late.

What can a parent do to prevent such an irrevocable mistake? There are a few approaches that might help. Don't reassign the job of taking the child to day care from one parent to the other unless absolutely necessary. See if someone reliable with no morning routine is available to step in instead. If not, tape a prominent note to the dashboard near the steering wheel, a potentially lifesaving variant on "Baby on Board." If feasible, arrange for someone to call the parent who's taking the child as soon as that parent gets to work, confirming that all went as planned -- and then the parent should go back to the car and make sure.

It may be too much to hope that we've heard the last such story. But we can hope not to hear as many, or as soon.

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