By Kim Smiley
Every summer, the news covers heartbreaking stories of children who die after being inadvertently left inside a vehicle. Since 1998, 527 children have died from heat stroke from being exposed to high temperatures inside a vehicle. One of the most tragic elements of these stories is that these deaths are preventable.
This issue can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis that intuitively lays out all the causes that contributed to the problem. The first step in building a Cause Map is to determine how the issue affects the overall goals. In this example, the safety goal is the obvious focus since there have been hundreds of deaths. The next step is to ask “why” questions and add the answers to the Cause Map. Why have 527 children died? They died of heat stroke because they were left inside a car and the interior of the car was hot. Children also overheat quicker than adults because their thermoregulatory system isn’t as efficient.
The children were left inside the car because they were inadvertently forgotten, a caregiver intentionally left them inside or the children managed to get inside the cars themselves. There are a number of reasons that a caregiver could forget a small child. The most frightening thing about these incidents is that it can happen to well intentioned, loving parents who simply make a terrible mistake. These incidents tend to occur most often when there is a change of routine, such as a different parent than normal doing the daycare drop off. It certainly doesn’t help that many parents and caregivers of young children are tired and potentially sleep deprived. The driver may also not be able to see a small child because many states require backward facing car seats in the back seat. In the cases where a caregiver intentionally leaves a child and no harm was intended, it’s safe to assume that they didn’t understand the danger. There are also cases where a child enters a car and becomes trapped inside. In those examples, the vehicle was most likely unlocked and the caregiver didn’t realize the child was playing in the vehicle.
Vehicles are especially dangerous because they heat up very quickly to dangerous levels. A car is an enclosed space with a lot of windows to let in sunlight, making it an ideal situation for temperatures to increase. Even relatively mild days can result in hot temperatures inside a car. The temperature inside a car can raise about 40 degrees even when the ambient temperatures are in the 70s, meaning the inside of a car can be over 110 degrees on a fairly cool day.
There are a number of gadgets people have invented to help prevent children from being inadvertently forgotten in a car, but their effectiveness is debated. The simplest way to prevent this from happening is very low tech; put your purse, shoe or anything that you must have in the backseat. Another suggestion is to keep a large stuffed animal in the car seat and then move it up to the front passenger seat while the car seat is occupied so that you have a visual reminder of your precious cargo. The most important thing is to be aware of this deadly problem and have a plan to prevent it if you ever drive around children, especially those strapped into car seats.