July 12, 2013

PETULA DVORAK: Death by hot car is preventable

Petula Dvorak

The worst part of summer is here, when children die slowly in searing-hot cars.

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 PREVENT A TRAGEDY

* Never leave a child alone in a car -- not even for a minute, not even if the windows are down.

* Set a reminder on your cellphone to be sure that you drop your child at day care.

* Keep a stuffed animal in the car. When the child is put in the seat, place the animal in the front with the driver.

* Place your cellphone, purse or briefcase on the floor of the back seat. This will help remind you to open the back door and see that your child is in the car.

* Ask your childcare provider to call if your child does not arrive when expected.

* Lock car doors and always keep keys out of reach of young children. Teach children not to play in or around cars.

There were two last week, an 8-month-old in Virginia and a 16-month-old in Maryland.

Both deaths could have been prevented, if only we had the humility to accept a little help.

Technology exists to make it impossible for anyone to forget the baby in the back seat. We just don't use it.

Why? Because many people reject the notion that they could ever forget a kid. But it can happen to anyone in this age of distraction.

It has happened 19 times so far this year -- and almost always, the script is the same. There's an otherwise solid, responsible parent who gets distracted on the way to work and forgets about the quiet, sleeping child strapped in the rear-facing, out-of-sight safety seat.

Scientists have tried to explain the way our memory lets this happen.

Our short-term memory can hold only a small number of line items, about seven. When that little brain basket is full -- drop kid off, pick up birthday cake, email boss about the project, call doctor, deliver report to Larry, pay car insurance, complete online training module, change water filter -- one or two items fall out.

When the human brain clears out the less important things and realizes the most important task was the one that fell off the list, it's usually too late.

The Alexandria, Va., mother, Zoraida Magali Conde Hernandez, 32, went about her morning routine -- day care, work, day care -- only she forgot the first trip to day care and went straight to work, leaving the child inside a car for six hours while it was 90 degrees outside.

Horrible.

And she was immediately taken from Inova Alexandria Hospital, where she drove the child after she realized her fatal mistake, to the Arlington County Detention Center and charged with felony neglect.

She is the mother of five children. Of course she's got a ton of stuff floating around in her head on the way to work.

What happened to her could happen to any working parent. Read Gene Weingarten's Pulitzer-winning Washington Post magazine story on car-seat deaths in 2009, and you'll see what I mean.

Take a look at the statistics and see when this started happening -- right after laws were passed that require kids to be in car seats in the back.

In 2010, 49 kids died in overheated cars nationwide, then 33 in 2011 and 32 last year, according to statistics kept by meteorologist Jan Null and the advocacy group KidsandCars.Org.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration held a round table with Null and other experts to try to come up with ways to curb these deaths.

Last year, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland announced a safety campaign to address this. It's a "Look Before You Lock" kind of thing.

Well, yeah. But it's not enough. We have technology to address this, yet no one is pushing car or car-seat manufacturers to add left-child alerts to conveniences such as drink warmers, headlight shut-off and self-parking.

"You don't need devices to babysit your kids," the naysayers will say.

But why wouldn't we use technology to make our kids safer? We have cars that beep when you're getting to close to the semi in the next lane. We buy irons that automatically shut off before they burn down the house after you've left in your nicely pressed shirt. Our elevators reopen rather than eat your arm when you try to enter or exit. I made this point when a child died in a car seat two years ago, and I'll make it again.

Scientists at NASA developed a Child Presence Sensor in 2002. It attaches to your key ring and beeps if there's something or someone in the car seat and you walk away. It went nowhere.

But this year, the First Years company came up with a car seat that has a sensor. It's new, and it should be the standard for every car seat.

It may go the way of some other aftermarket devices that failed to sell because no parent could imagine ever forgetting that little ball of life that means everything to him or her in the back seat.

That's exactly what the parents of 19 other kids thought this year, too.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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