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Kids Left in Cars

A Fatal, Forgetful Mistake


Wednesday, July 17, 2013
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This column won’t make you laugh. In fact, if you even crack a grin, then I’ve done something wrong. But I have to talk about this issue because it haunts me, and I need to believe some good will come from airing it.

Every year in this country, about 20 infants and young children die after being accidentally left in a car. Not left for 30 minutes while a frazzled mom runs into a Walmart. Not left for an hour while a delinquent dad ducks into a bar. Those are just bad decisions: deliberate and ill-advised.

I mean left for hours upon hours in a closed-up car, where temperatures can climb to 125 degrees, by otherwise responsible but disastrously distracted parents who forget that their baby is strapped in the backseat and so get out of their vehicles and go blithely about their lives while their child suffers heatstroke and dies alone.

Starshine Roshell

It’s horrific. Gut-twistingly, skull-throbbingly unthinkable. Yet it happens all the time. It happened to babies in Virginia and Maryland over the Fourth of July weekend. It sounds like something that only happens to soft-headed imbeciles unfit to reproduce. But it’s happened over the years to a college professor, a cop, a rocket scientist, a clergyman, a nurse, a social worker, a pediatrician. … It happens to protective parents who put foam bumpers on every sharp corner in their home and organized parents who start college funds while their babies are still in utero.

I know because it happened to me.

My husband and I took turns driving our son to daycare each morning. It was my day, so I strapped him into his rear-facing car seat in the back and began driving. Exhausted from months of predawn feedings and anticipating the demanding workday ahead, I unconsciously steered my car onto the well-beaten path to my downtown office. I turned on the radio, slid into autopilot, pulled into the office parking lot, killed the ignition, and grabbed my purse. When I reached for the door handle, something stopped me cold.

My son made a sound in the backseat.

I can’t tell you if it was a coo, a cough, a cry. All I remember is feeling startled, then slightly sick, then going ice-water cold with the shame and unshakeable horror of what might have been — what almost, dear god, was. I had almost gone inside and worked an eight-hour day, certain that my son was already safe at daycare.

I’ll spare you the details of what happens to a baby whose body temperature spikes to fatal heights. My son and I never found out. And that doesn’t make my error excusable — but it keeps me from being a criminal.

Some parents have been tried for manslaughter for this mistake; others are left alone to somehow live with what they’ve done. There’s no justice in any of it, and I don’t even know if there’s a lesson. We should all slow down and focus? We shouldn’t operate heavy machinery until our babies are sleeping through the night? We should never assume that we know what the hell we’re doing?

I’m telling you all this because summertime is when this accident most often turns to tragedy. Here are some tips from KidsAndCars.org, an advocacy group that works to prevent these types of deaths:

• Keep your purse or phone next to the car seat so you’ll never leave the car without seeing your child.

• Keep a large stuffed animal in the car seat when it’s not occupied, and move the toy to the front seat when your kid’s in the car seat, so you’ll have a visual reminder next to you.

• Ask your child’s babysitter to always call you if your child doesn’t show up.

And slow down and focus while you’re at it. It can’t hurt.

Related Links

Starshine Roshell is the author of Wife on the Edge.

Comments

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Thanks Starshine... scary and tragic. Also somehow related to the whole childcare + carseat culture... years ago my mom and dad just plunked me down on the front seat, no seat belts, a giant old 1940's car with a chrome dashboard. Once I went flying when my dad did a sudden stop and got a little banged up... definitely more dangerous than today's car seats.

But he could see me and was unlikely to forget me.

snugspout (anonymous profile)
July 17, 2013 at 7:28 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Amen. God forbid. It could have been me.

Ibid (anonymous profile)
July 17, 2013 at 10:44 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Thank you, Starshine.

Moonrunner (anonymous profile)
July 18, 2013 at 12:44 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"Those are just bad decisions: deliberate and ill-advised."

Mostly ill advised because somebody is likely to see your perfectly safe kid alone in the car and call 911 and then you've got to deal with CPS and all sorts of people who think that under no circumstances should a child under the age of 18 be left alone in a car for any length of time whatsoever.

Rich (anonymous profile)
July 19, 2013 at 12:40 a.m. (Suggest removal)

This is one of those things of which I live in fear of. A mother who worked with my wife ran in to quickly look over a few spreadsheets when she fell asleep at her desk, leaving all three of her children stuck in the car where they perished. I won't even run back into my house for sunglasses (or whatever) without leaving the doors open--just in case I slip and become immobilized. My dad thinks I'm nuts for that. Being a disorganized and forgetful father or three, I've made a habit of leaving my windows open a few inches just on the off chance I may have forgotten someone. Thankfully not yet! And don't forget about those dogs, either. Good article---may save a life.

3domfighter (anonymous profile)
July 19, 2013 at 9:07 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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