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Dozens of children die of heatstroke each year from being left in hot cars by a distracted parent or caregiver. After each tragedy, a swirl of questions follows: How could someone forget that a child was in the backseat? What can be done to prevent this from happening?
The ability of our brains to shift into autopilot may explain how these tragedies can unfold. When we drive familiar routes or follow routines 24/7, our minds can wander into autopilot, enabling us to carry on with our tasks but forgetting that we had made different plans, explains NorthShore Psychiatrist Joshua L. Straus, MD.
“In addition to a change in routine, contributing factors include lack of sleep or
poor-quality sleep, stressful life events, hormone changes, fatigue and distractions,” said Dr. Straus. “New parents often experience many of these factors with increased intensity.”
It is crucial to be focused on just the one task when parking the car to safely exit the car, to be sure that there is no child left behind, he added.
“ ‘Multitasking’ is an illusion. In reality, the human brain rapidly shifts from one task to another,” Dr. Straus explained. “Attempting to do more than one thing at a time, such as using a smartphone at the same time as exiting the vehicle, greatly increases the odds of leaving out steps and ignoring information that can put lives in danger.”
Dr. Straus said it can be helpful to do a double check to account for all persons who have been in the car, similar to what they do on airlines with a passenger count at the beginning and the end of the journey. This is especially helpful if there are many passengers, for instance in a minivan with a carpool of children.
Sadly, all parents and caregivers are at risk of forgetting a child in the backseat. Dr. Straus and KidsandCars.org offer these safety tips that may help jog your memory when traveling with children:
Through July this year, 24 children have died after unknowingly being left in hot cars by their parents or caregivers. KidsandCars.org supports the Hot Cars Act of 2019, which would require all new passenger vehicles to come with standard equipment designed to help prevent child deaths from heatstroke in motor vehicles.