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Tragedy revisited

Food for Thought

This summer’s spate of child deaths resulting from being left in hot cars brings back memories of 2001, when a woman from Iowa left her young daughter in a hot car for several hours, forgetting that it had been her turn to drop her off at daycare before going to her job. The child died and Iowans were divided over the matter of blame. Should the woman be prosecuted for neglect, or should the event be deemed a tragic accident? Either way, no punishment could possibly equal the guilt and loss the mother would suffer for the rest of her life, knowing that she had walked away from that car and left her precious daughter to suffer and die alone.
Many people have suggested simple ways to prevent such accidents from occurring; some of the simplest being that the parent should place his or her purse, briefcase, or other item needed at work in the back seat of the car next to the child’s car seat, so that the child couldn’t be forgotten about when the parent arrived at work and went to retrieve the purse or briefcase. A young teenage boy made the news with a simple device he constructed from rubber bands and tape. Resembling a loose bungee cord, the device is simply fastened from the inside door handle to the inside of the door frame so that, when the driver opens the car door to get out, the cord will bar his way and remind him that the child is still in the car.
The problem with these methods is that it is the responsible parent who must remember to institute these methods of drawing his attention to the fact of the child being in the car. Now, if that parent is so distracted by other matters that he forgets his child, isn’t it likely that he will also forget to initiate the steps that will remind him of the child? What seems to be needed is some way of checking on or reminding the parent. A non-human device, such as an alarm attached to the child’s car-seat could be permanently set to sound when the drivers-side door is opened. This alarm could be automatically set whenever the child is placed in the seat, so that it does not have to rely on a human being in order to work. Since car-seats are required to be properly installed and used for children under a certain age, surely requiring the addition of such an alarm would not seem unreasonable.
An alternate, or possibly even supplementary, precaution might be to require the daycare person to call the parent if the child is not dropped off at the usual time (unless previous notice had been given that the child would not be there that day.) This puts an extra burden on the daycare provider, and still leaves the possibility that the child could be left in a car for some time before the call is made, but if it might save a child’s life and a parent’s agony, it would be worth the trouble.
Relying on someone else to remind us of something we should be able to remember on our own is always a bit of a cop-out. Due to human nature, the further a person is separated from the matter, the less likely he is to conscientiously tend to it. That is, the parent, having the most at stake, is more likely to remember than a person who has been delegated to check on him. And, as the back-up person would have less incentive, he is more likely to forget than is the parent. So, such an arrangement would have to be a required part of a regular routine.
On the other hand, human nature also tends to make us immune to little tricks and devices intended to trigger certain behavior or bring things to our attention. For all my life, I’ve been immune to the sound of an alarm clock. Telephones, on the other hand, get my immediate attention, so I’ve learned to use an alarm clock that can be set to sound like a telephone ringing. A car alarm that goes off every time the driver’s door is opened– whether or not there is a child in the car– can be ignored when there is no child to be concerned with, so the driver is very likely to turn it off automatically, and to become so accustomed to doing this that he doesn’t give it due thought. Thus, he could conceivably turn it off without thinking when there actually was a child in the car. I know this sounds pretty far-fetched, but there seems to be no absolutely dependable way of preventing a distracted parent heading for work from forgetting, for the moment, that there is a child in the car, and accidentally going off and leaving the child there to die.
Maybe the key words are “distracted parent heading for work” and we should be working at eliminating the cause of the problem rather than just sticking more band-aids on it.