By Holly Maher
On the morning of May 13, 2015, a parent was following his normal morning routine on his way to work. He dropped off his older daughter at school and then proceeded to the North Quincy MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) station where he boarded a commuter train headed to work. When he arrived, approximately 35 minutes later, he realized that he had forgotten to drop off his one-year-old daughter at her day care and had left her in his SUV in the North Quincy station parking lot. The frantic father called 911 as he boarded a train returning to North Quincy. Thankfully, the police and emergency responders were able to find and remove the infant from the vehicle. The child showed no signs of medical distress as a result of being in the parked car for over 35 minutes.
Had this incident resulted in an actual injury or fatality, I am not sure I would have had the heart to write about it. However, because the impact was only a potential injury or fatality, I think there is great value in understanding the details of what happened and specifically how can we learn from this incident. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. According to kidsandcars.org, an average of 38 children die in hot cars annually. About half of those children were accidentally left in the vehicle by a parent, grandparent or caretaker. While some people want to talk about these incidents using the terms “negligence” or “irresponsibility”, in the cases identified as accidental it is clear the parents were not trying to forget their children. They often describe going into “autopilot” mode and just forgetting. How many of us can identify with that statement?
On the morning this incident happened, the parent was following his typical routine. After dropping off his older child at school, he went into “autopilot” and went directly to the North Quincy MBTA station, parked and left the vehicle to board the train. His one-year-old daughter was not visible to him at that point because she was in the back seat of the vehicle in a rear facing car seat, as required by law. Airbags were originally introduced in the 1970s but became more commercially available in the early 1990s. In 1998, all vehicles were required to have airbags in both the driver and passenger positions. This safety improvement, which has surely reduced deaths related to vehicle accidents, had the unintended consequence of putting children in car seats in a less visible position to the parents. The number of hot car deaths has significantly increased since the early 1990s.
On the morning of the incident the ambient conditions were relatively mild, about 59 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the temperature in a vehicle can quickly exceed the ambient conditions due to what is called the greenhouse effect. Even with the windows down, the temperature in a vehicle can rise quickly. 80% of that temperature rise occurs within the first 10 minutes.
When the parent arrived at his destination, approximately 35 minutes later, he realized he had forgotten the infant and reboarded a train to return to the North Quincy station. Thankfully, the parent also called 911 which expedited the rescue of the infant. The time in the vehicle would obviously have been longer had he not called 911.
One other interesting detail about this incident is that the parent reported that he normally had a “safeguard” procedure that he followed to make sure this didn’t happen, but he didn’t follow it on this particular day. It is unknown what the safeguard was or why it wasn’t followed. This certainly makes an interesting point: we don’t follow safeguards when we know something is going to happen, we follow safeguards in case something happens. As I told my daughter (who didn’t want to wear her seatbelt on the way from school to home because it “wasn’t that far”), you wear your seat belt not because you know you are going to get into an accident, you wear it in case you get into an accident.
The solutions that have been identified for this incident have been taken directly from kidsandcars.org. They promote and encourage a consistent process to manage this risk not when you know you are going to forget, but in case you forget. Consider placing something you need (phone, shoe, briefcase, purse) in the rear floor board so that you are required to open the rear door of the vehicle. Always open the rear door when leaving your vehicle; this is called the “Look before you Lock” campaign. Consider keeping a stuffed animal in the car seat; when the car seat is occupied, place the stuffed animal in the front seat as a visual cue/reminder that the child is in the car. Consider implementing a process where the day care or caretaker calls if your child does not show up when expected. This will minimize the amount of time the child might be left in the car.
For more information about this topic, visit kidsandcars.org.