This past week, a Virginia mother earned a few national headlines after being charged with leaving her two young children in her car on a hot summer day. While not wholly remarkable in itself, what made this particular mother’s absenteeism so odd is that she did it while turning herself in for a previous instance of leaving her children in her car. The charges are reigniting a longstanding debate about the best practices for busy parents who frequently have to decide between leaving the child alone for a few brief minutes or facing a public tantrum from the child. It is illegal in 19 states to leave an infant or toddler alone in a locked car and, if the child dies while in the car, many parents might face manslaughter charges.
According to the safety advocates at Kidswithcars.org, an average of 30 children die every year from heatstroke after being left in a locked car. While that means it’s a fairly rare cause of death for infants, it’s a very high number for what should be a completely avoidable tragedy. While laws like the one that Virginia mom is being charged with violating attempt to reign in these deaths, the rate of occurrences has remained steady for the past decade. The laws can also be overbearing to parents who make a split decision that, on a cool day and for a brief moment, does not actually endanger the child. Many of these deaths are also caused when a child enters a parked car without a parent’s knowledge or when a parent becomes distracted and forgets the baby in the backseat.
All of these seem like simple causes to a devastating problem, and should likewise be met by simple solutions. Car manufacturers have largely washed their hands of the problem, not seeing it as a safety issue that could be treated by engineering in the same way child safety locks were once implemented in a past generation of cars. Way back in 2001, General Motors announced an engineering initiative to find possible solutions to this problem. Today, GM has laregly abandoned the project, with one spokesman telling the Washington Post, “We’ve never been able to do it when it’s 100 percent effective.”
How is it easier for our car to remember our Spotify playlist but not whether our child is in the backseat?
Which seems like a ludicrous excuse. For decades, cars have been outfitted with sensors to remind drivers to wear their seatbelt, get their keys, and turn off their headlights. Even cars more than two decades old can identify when someone is in the passenger seat and when they are or are not wearing their seatbelt. Rearview cameras and parking assist sensors are standard in many models and some automakers are working toward self-parking and self-driving cars. Our automobiles are becoming as linked to the resources of the Internet as our smartphones. How is it easier for our car to remember our Spotify playlist but not whether our child is in the backseat?
KidsandCars, the loudest voice in the U.S. and Canada on preventing heatstroke deaths in infants, has lobbied in the past to have national safety standards force Detroit to develop reminder devices and sensors to help parents who accidentally leave their child in the car, but has largely failed to move lawmakers. Last year, KidsandCars launched a We The People petition to force the White House to speak up on the issue but, with just 10,663 signatures, they fell short of the required signature threshold to necessitate a comment from the president.
In general, it’s a hard issue to generate much public interest in when not through the lens of anger at neglectful parents. While one can be sure there are some parents ignorantly using their car as a babysitter, the majority of these deaths happen to knowledgeable, well-intentioned parents who either put their child in no danger or those who made a horrific mistake that any parent could make. In its highly detailed expose on the topic, “Fatal Distraction,” the Washington Post found the children of rich parents and poor parents, black parents and white parents were all equally likely to be left in a car by accident.
“In the last 10 years,” writes the Post’s Gene Weingarten, “it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.” Clearly, it is a universal problem, one that cannot be addressed until we remove some of the shame and guilt surrounding it.
And when a mistake results in the death of a child, it is a tragedy everyone shares. But the laws surrounding leaving your children in your car are likewise building this sense that only neglectful, bad parents do this. In 2013 and 2014, two different mothers went public complaining about charges they faced for momentarily leaving their children in their car on cools days. Each was attempting to avoid a tantrum and left their child in a locked car with an electronic device on a cool, cloudy day for no longer than 15 minutes. Both were spotted by passersby and charged with criminal contribution to the delinquency of a child. As Lenore Skenazy, mommy blogger and coiner of the term “free range kids” told NBC’s Today, “I feel as if we’ve criminalized something that we all know in our heart of hearts is generally safe.”
Perhaps the laws are like the fence at the Grand Canyon—they don’t put the fence right at the edge. If someone doesn’t abide by the rules and jumps the fence, their foolishness doesn’t result in a death. Perhaps we all know a child can be safe left in a car for a brief time weather permitting, but the laws are meant to enforce a zero-tolerance approach to prevent those parents that might be less warranted to leave their children behind. And while that approach has logic, it’s creating the stigma that is hindering the conversation and more importantly, the regulations that could prevent a large chunk of these infant deaths.
Some hi-tech options do already exist for parents willing to spend the money to help themselves prevent the accidental death-by-hyperthermia of their children. In March, Starfish, a weight sensor linked to an iPhone app to remind a parent of their child’s presence in the backseat, met its funding goal on Kickstarter. TOMY International unveiled a more expensive solution, the First Years Convertible Car Seat. Using a myriad of weight, position, and temperature sensors, TOMY’s car seat is looking to prevent infant automobile deaths of all kinds by alerting the parent through a partnered app to the child’s circumstances at all times. Just last month, a group of Rice University engineers unveiled Infant SOS, a car seat rig that not only alerts parents to the child’s presence but uses a cooling system to enhance the child’s chance of survival. A cheaper option could be proximity sensors attached to the parent and the car seat, informing parents when they’ve wandered too far from the car seat without checking it for a child first.
This might seem like a lot of workaround to help solve a problem that could presumably be prevented by good parenting, but no parent is perfect. Mistakes, even tragic ones, happen all the time. Anyone who’s had a child can explain the fear that one slip-up, one moment of forgetfulness, will forge a lifetime of guilt and pain. And while responsibility does ultimately fall on the parent, automakers owe it to consumers to take seriously their part in preventing the deaths of infants the same way they must when designing the host of sensors and airbags cars have today. The technology is clearly available to solve this problem, but the shame and stigma surrounding the conversation is clouding the root of the issue.
Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter.
Photo via alex92287/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)