COLUMBUS, NE — With weeks remaining in the summer, the number of children who have died in hot cars this year rose to 30 after a Columbus, Nebraska, mother forgot her 1-year-old in the backseat of her car when she reported to work around 8 a.m. Wednesday.
The 37-year-old woman worked a full day, discovering she had forgotten her son around 5:45 p.m., Columbus Police Capt. Todd Thalken said. Police did not release her name or her place of employment, and are continuing their investigation.
Thalken said the boy’s death was a mistake, and the mother’s routine had been disrupted Wednesday.
“It’s just a horrible, bad thing that happened,” he told the Columbus Telegram of the boy’s death of vehicular heatstroke. “There was a lack of intent, a lack of anything malicious. The lady feels horrible. She’s got a routine that she follows every day and for some reason yesterday that routine didn’t happen.”
That happens more frequently than people realize, according to the National Highway Highway Traffic Safety Association.
“Heatstroke isn’t about irresponsible people intentionally leaving children in cars;” the agency says on its website. “Most cases occur when a child is mistakenly left or gets into a vehicle unattended and becomes trapped.”
During an average year, 39 children die of vehicular heatstroke — or one every nine days, according to Kids and Cars, a national advocacy group that is lobbying Congress to require the automobile industry to adopt new technology to help prevent vehicular heatstroke. 2018 was the deadliest year for hot car deaths, with 52 fatalities.
Kids die in hot cars most often in hot-weather states like Texas, Florida, California, Arizona and Georgia. Only two states, Alaska and Vermont, haven’t recorded a single pediatric vehicular heatstroke death between 1990 and 2019.
Six children died in hot cars in the first week of August alone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
So far this year, pediatric hot car deaths include five in Texas; four in Florida; two in Arizona, New York, South Carolina and Tennessee; and one in Alabama, California, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia.
In many cases, a parent completely loses awareness that the child is in the car, according to David Diamond, professor of psychology, molecular pharmacology and physiology at the University of South Florida who has studied the hot car deaths phenomenon for 15 years.
His research shows parents can forget their kids are in the car as a result of competition among the brain’s memory systems — the “habit memory” system that allows people to rotely perform routine tasks without thinking about them, and the “prospective memory” system used to plan. The habit memory system typically prevails, and the problem is particularly acute among parents experiencing sleep deprivation or stress, according to Diamond.
“Often these stories involve a distracted parent,” Gene Brewer, an Arizona State University associate professor of psychology, said in a press release. “Memory failures are remarkably powerful, and they happen to everyone. There is no difference between gender, class, personality, race or other traits. Functionally, there isn’t much of a difference between forgetting your keys and forgetting your child in the car.”
However, in some cases, “I forgot” is just a ruse. In 2016, Justin Ross Harris of Marietta, Georgia, was convicted of murder in the death his 22-month-old son, Cooper, who was left in a hot car for seven hours in 2014 while Harris went to work. According to testimony at his trial, Harris’ web searches revealed that he longed for a “child-free lifestyle.”
Twenty-one states currently have laws regulating children who are left unattended in vehicles: Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.
Bipartisan legislation before Congress — the Hot Cars Act of 2019 — would require that all new cars are equipped with a system that detects and alerts drivers to the presence of a child unknowingly left in a vehicle. Sponsors are Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, both Democrats, and Republican Rep. Peter King of New York.
Similar legislation in the Senate is sponsored by Sens. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, and Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Maria Cantwell of Washington, both Democrats.
Kids and Cars says the proposed legislation has broad support from public health, safety and consumer organizations, law enforcement and first responders, animal protection groups, and others.
“No one thinks a hot car tragedy can happen to them or their family. That is precisely why technology is necessary. The fact that technology exists to save the lives of children, but is not being included in all new vehicles is inconceivable,” Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsAndCars.org, said in a statement. “I am heartbroken knowing that families are holding their precious children right now that will no longer have them by the end of summer.”
Newer vehicles already have chimes and alerts to remind drivers headlights have been left on, keys were left in the ignition and doors are ajar. Adding alerts and chimes to remind drivers of a child in the back set “will save the lives of some of our most vulnerable passengers,” Cathy Chase, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said in a statement.
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“Unfortunately we have learned that public education alone cannot overcome the serious risk of children being unknowingly left in hot cars,” Chase said. “That is why it is so critical that vehicles be equipped with a detection and alert system so that drivers and caregivers are reminded of the presence of a child in the back seat, as the Hot Cars Act would require.”
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said in a statement that it is carefully reviewing the proposed legislation, but pointed out that fewer than 13 percent of new car buyers have a child who is 6 years old or younger.
“The loss of any life is tragic, and greater awareness and vigilance are absolutely crucial to help save young lives, right now, this week,” the organization said, pointing out that it takes about two decades for technological improvements to reach all passenger vehicles on the roads today. “Greater public awareness saves lives today.”
Cars can heat up quickly, even on mild days, and can become deadly in as little as 10 minutes, Jan Null, an adjunct professor and research meteorologist at San Jose State University, told Patch in an email. It’s never OK to leave a child unattended in a car, Null said.
Null’s research shows that on a 70-degree day, the temperature inside can reach 89 degrees within five minutes. Within an hour, it can reach 113 degrees.
It’s even worse on 90-degree days. Within five minutes, the temperature can reach 100 degrees; in an hour, it can reach 133 degrees.