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Children left in hot cars – less judgment, more solutions please

With two toddlers found dead in oven-like cars in less than a week, Neil Hedley offers tips, ideas and resources to get you thinking about preventing another tragedy.
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Neil Hedley, July 4, 2013 1:13:55 PM

“I think people like that should be sterilized,” the commenter said.  My friend Dan, who does a terrific morning radio show in Calgary, had posted the tragic news of a child in Edmonton being found dead after having been left in a sweltering hot car.  (I was just about to add the word “accidentally” before the word “left”, but I pray the best prayer I’ve ever prayed that it’s never not an accident.)

I don’t know whether Dan deleted this person’s comment, or the person who originally wrote it saw the hatred that was dripping from it and in hindsight, deemed it something they didn’t want forever attached to their Facebook profile.  I just know that for me, Facebook’s a better place when people keep thoughts like that to themselves.

In the days since I wrote a piece on my own website about the tragic events in Edmonton (and a couple of days before that in Milton, Ontario), I’ve read probably a hundred different articles by everyone from psychologists to really angry Moms about these kinds of events, and here’s what I’ve learned: You’d be hard-pressed to find a single case where a child was found dead in a car, where the adult who left them there said, “Yeah, I thought this might happen.”

Debate and judgment over this issue will go on for ages, and there will always be people who will defend the position that only an idiot would forget a child in those circumstances.  For those people, I can only suggest the brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning article by Gene Weingarten from the Washington Post in 2009, where he says (among other brilliant things):

“The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.”

I fully understand the jump to judgment – psychologists say that we do it as a defense mechanism, a subconscious way to set our minds at ease by convincing us that these kinds of horrors – who could quite literally happen to anyone – could never happen to us.

However, judgment and shaming masquerading as a solution doesn’t work for me.  So I’ve scouted around and found that most experts agree on a few simple suggestions that might help avoid the next tragedy.  And I’ll toss in an “out of the box” kind of idea at the end that you might find interesting as well.

And please, do me a favour – re-read the third paragraph above and know in advance that I don’t think you’re the kind of person who would forget their kid in the back of the car. Then again, I don’t know that I would put that label on ANYONE who has found themselves in this situation.  So maybe we work these ideas out as a team, and implement them ourselves whether we feel we need to or not – just in case.

Let’s deal with this first – if you see a child left alone in a car, ACT.  Call 9-1-1, even if the child looks perfectly happy.  Call 9-1-1, even if the car is running, with the air conditioning on, parked in front of the door to a gas station.  Police officers I’ve talked to say break a window if necessary (while you’re calling 9-1-1), but have a witness with you when you do.  If you’re worried about some kind of physical altercation with the driver, or legal action, or punitive action by the police, and use your judgment to weight those factors against the possibility that for every second you’re failing to act, the child might be suffering brain damage before your eyes.  And you don’t want to live the rest of your life knowing that you could have done something, but chose not to.

For drivers and caregivers, think of these – again, just in case:

Put something else in the back seat
I saw someone online say derisively, “If your purse is more important than your child, then I guess that makes sense.” Here’s the thing: For most of us, our children aren’t with us for 100 per cent of the car trips we take from the day we get our driver’s licenses till the day we’re put in the ground. So to say you never get in the car without checking the car seat is just plain inaccurate.  However, most of us do have other things: Purses, cell phones, wallets, laptops, whatever the item is, it’s something we never leave the car without.  Because even if your kids are in the car for 95 per cent of your car trips, there’s a chance your brain will need some trigger to remind you whether this trip is in the 95 or the 5 – and whether that trigger is your iPad or your overwhelming motherly love, it’s not something that happens automatically – that’s not how human brains work, despite people’s noble protestations to the contrary.  So find something you absolutely need when you arrive at your destination, and put it in the back seat with your child. Don’t look at it as an insult, or a slight on your skills as a parent – look at it as something that reduces your odds of a tragedy.  (You’re not insulted when you’re told to buckle up, are you? No. You do it because it offers an extra measure of safety, in case the unthinkable happens.)

Put a visual reminder up front with you
This one’s sort of an extension of the first.  Obviously we can’t put our kids in the front seat, because as a society we’ve signed off on airbag systems that can seriously harm or injure our children.  But we can bring along a buddy, like a large stuffed animal – the kind you win for hitting a milk bottle with a tennis ball – who comes along with our kids on car trips.  We can even use it as a teaching tool, making the stuffed animal wear the seat belt like they will one day.  Is it potentially a hassle to carry that extra item to the car? Yup. Is it better than the worst case scenario?

Have a backup system
If you have a child safety seat in your vehicle, there’s at least a reasonable chance that someone is expecting you and / or your kid to arrive at a final destination. Set up a confirmation call with them. For example: My wife leaves for work around 8:40 every morning. On a normal day, her commute should take her 20 minutes. She knows very well that if I don’t get a text message from her by 9:05, the worrying will have begun, and if I don’t hear from her by 9:10, I call. This works on a bunch of levels – it’s kind of romantic, because it gives me one more chance to say “I love you” before her day begins, and it’s a safety-check we’ve built into our day. The text message is the last thing she does before she gets out of the car. Every time. Would it be so terrible to build an “I made it safely” routine into your drive, and make it a habit, with a built-in follow-up when the message doesn’t arrive? Because even in a scenario where last-minute dropoff responsibilities change, that exchange of messages also provides an opportunity to make sure that everyone has gotten to the destination they’re supposed to. Single parent? Make Grandma, or one of the child’s godparents be the person you check in with. It’s an extra step, sure. But having two people aware of your travel plans increases the chances that everything’s going to go smoothly. In addition, many daycare centers will call parents to find out what’s going on if a child hasn’t shown up as expected.

The out-of-the-box Idea
This is a call, out loud, to the auto industry and the manufacturers of car seats. Here’s the idea which, like many of my ideas, has been refined and polished up nicely by my wife: You know how you can’t use the keyless remote to lock the car doors if one of them is ajar?  Build that same kind of security into the buckle of the child safety seat.  If it’s buckled, the doors can’t lock.  Want another option?  Build something into the keyless entry system where if the buckle on the car seat is engaged, and the keys get more than 25 feet away from the buckle, the alarm goes off.  If even a dunce like me can come up with two solutions like that off the top of his head, there are absolutely zero customer- or technology-focused reasons you can give me for not having an equivalent or better answer as standard equipment within two model years.

Or, we can just keep judging and shaming people and hope that saves these children’s lives.

Chip in your own ideas, and let’s take the brain power currently being used to pass judgment to instead create solutions that work.

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