It’s a tragic tale we read too often: A tiny baby left to die in a broiling hot car by one or both of their parents. Who could do such a thing, we ask ourselves?
But the answer, experts say, is just as horrifying: You would.
‘The biggest mistake people make is thinking it won’t happen to them,’ Janette Fennell, founder of child safety nonprofit kidsandcars.org told the Tampa Bay Times.
A car can become dangerously hot in just minutes, and fatally so within an hour – with sunlight on an 80-degree day heating a car interior to 123 degrees in just an hour.
And as young children cannot regulate their body temperature, they quickly succumb to the deadly heat.
The bond between a parent and child is so strong that many parents believe there must be some malice at play when a child dies such a ghastly and preventable death.
Surely, they assume, the parent was an unfeeling psychopath, or lost in a haze of drugs, or simply outright homicidal.
But they are in the minority. According to 1998-2017 statistics from San Jose State University’s department of meteorology and climate science, 54 per cent are simply because the parents forgot.
A further 28 per cent are due to children playing in and around unattended vehicles
And just 17 per cent are due to deliberate action by the parents.
Already two children have died in hot cars this year; last year the death toll was 39 – just two over the average 37 such deaths recorded in the US.
What links those 54 per cent of Americans whose forgetfulness led to the deaths of the 376 children in their charge?
It’s not their parents’ color, class, creed or careers: A glance at recent headlines reveals a swathe of bereaved parents from all walks of life.
There was the case of Wade Naramore, 36, a judge from Arkansas who intended to drop his 18-month-old son off at daycare in July 2015, but drove to his office instead.
Hours later he got into his car to pick his son up, and found the boy baked to death in the rear seat. The tiny child’s internal temperature was 107 degrees.
When officers arrived, Naramore was pacing back and forth, crying ‘I killed my baby!’ over and over.
He was acquitted of his son’s murder in August last year, and last month was allowed to return to office – but won’t be allowed to sit neglect cases.
In July Nancy Byrd-Wilkins’ nine-month-old son Jefferson died the same way after she forgot to drop him off at a daycare. She was not charged in his death.
In August, Georgia father Asa North, 24, was found trying to revive his twin 16-month-old daughters, Ariel and Alaynah, with ice packs after leaving them in his car.
Police said he had drunk alcohol that day, and charged him with involuntary manslaughter.
Also charged with manslaughter was Sgt Cassie Barker, a 27-year-old cop with the Long Beach PD in Mississippi, who left Cheyenne, three, while at the house of a colleague.
The universality of these deaths shows differences in the way some are prosecuted.
Within two weeks last year Joshua Blunt, a 26-year-old black man from Grenada County, Mississippi, and Amy Bryant, a white mom from Madison County, an hour away, lost their kids.
Bryant was never indicted, but Blunt was convicted of manslaughter – and got a five-year suspended sentence after his lawyer argued jailing him would be racist.
So what does link these tragic deaths?
According to Dr David Diamond, director of the Neuroscience Collaborative Program and Center for Preclinical and Clinical Research on PTSD at the University of South Florida, it’s often due to a conflict in the brain.
The brain has two types of memory: Habit memory – which deals with repetitive tasks like driving to work – and prospective memory, which is used to plan for the future.
‘When we repeatedly drive along a fixed route, as between home (or other typical start locations) and work, habit memory can supersede plans stored in our prospective memory,’ he told CNN.
That can happen almost daily, he says, ‘for example, when we forget to interrupt a drive home to stop at the store for groceries.
‘In this case, the habit memory system takes us directly home, suppressing our awareness (prospective memory) that we had planned to stop at the store.’
So when a break in routine occurs – like having a baby in the car when usually another parent takes it to daycare – parents can literally ‘forget’ their child is there.
That happens regardless of how caring they usually are – and with fatal results. Curiously, the brain will sometimes create false memories of dropping off the child, Diamond said.
Apps that detect if a car seat is occupied are among a number of ideas generated to stop these tragedies from occurring.
Others include putting a stuffed toy on the dash if you have a child in the back seat, or putting keys or an ID – anything essential to your job or day – next to the baby’s seat so you have to retrieve it.
But, Diamond said, that may well fall on deaf ears.
‘Many strategies have been suggested … but most people refuse to take any precautionary measures because they believe this could never happen to them, a potentially fatal mistake.’