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December 5, 2017 Joshua Schiffer


In this blog series, we are discussing the issue of child deaths by hyperthermia while in a locked car. Today we will explore the question:

How can a parent or a caregiver forget that a child is still in the car? How does this ‘forgotten child syndrome’ happen?

Since 1990, there have been more than 800 hot car child deaths in the U.S., according to data provided by Kids and Cars. In about 40% of the cases, it was found that the child’s death was a terrible mistake of forgetfulness. For the other 60% of the cases, authorities decided that the negligence was so great that it must be charged as a felony.




Memory is a forgetful machine.

Memory experts explain the cause of forgetfulness centers around two systems in our brain: habit memory and prospective memory. Habit memories are based on actions that become second nature because they are performed daily.

This forgotten child syndrome also tends to occur when the adult is overly distracted, overbooked, or exhausted. Such conditions can cause the mental faculties to fall apart or result in that extra task which fades into forgetfulness. The tired brain allows the habit memory system to take over, sometimes creating an imaginary check-mark of completing the task.

If it is 70 degrees outside, it is 125 degrees inside a hot car. Imagine what a child must be feeling. Temperatures inside a car rise quickly, making it hard for the child to breathe. Within minutes the child’s body tries to compensate by sweating, increased heart rate, and increased breathing. This continues until the body is overcome by hyperthermia and dies from respiratory and organ failure, seizure and heart attack.

Also horrific, is the shock of a parent when their child is discovered in the back seat—dead. The same pattern reappears, wild screams, shouts, panic and lifelong guilt. Yes, it is a tragic mistake, but is it a crime? Does it rise to the level of child neglect or is it a fatal forgetfulness? In some cases, the parent is found guilty, in others the parent is removed from the legal system yet forced to experience the torment of their guilt.

Enough is enough. This madness has to stop. There is technology, such as the Tesla software which alerts the driver if a child is forgotten in the back seat. There are measures the parent can take, like putting the diaper bag in the front seat next to the laptop bag. Hot car deaths are just one of the symptoms of an overly distracted and overly worked society.

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