American Opinion: A fatal mistake any of us could make

American Opinion
American Opinion

You're a single working parent, or a stay-at-home dad, or a grandmother assigned to babysit for the day. You're absent-minded or type-A, rich or poor or somewhere in between. Regardless of wealth, gender, age, occupation, ethnicity or any other demographic marker, it could be you. Though you don't believe so, until it's too late.

It's easy to watch the news and be certain that only an utterly heartless, totally incompetent parent could unintentionally leave a child in a car on a warm morning. But memory is fickle, and the neurological lapse that can cause a caregiver to forget about a child in the back seat of a vehicle is indiscriminate. To entertain this delusion is to hide from the facts: Eight-hundred and twenty-nine children have died in hot cars from 1998 to 2019, and more than half of those deaths have been accidental, according to the National Safety Council. A change in routine, a particularly stressful morning or even a distracting phone call can lead to this fatal slip. In the caregiver's mind, the child is happy and taken care of, safely dropped off at day care or wherever else they might normally be.

Last month in New York, Juan Rodriguez, a father of four, dropped his twin babies off at day care and drove to his eight-hour shift at a hospital in the Bronx. Like so many other devastated parents, he realized only after work that his overworked brain had imagined the drop-off. In the meantime, his youngest two children died in the back seat of his car, still buckled into their car seats. Since that day, nine other children have died from heat-related causes in the back seats of cars, bringing this year's total to more than 30.

This is not a new problem, and people have been pushing for technological solutions since at least 2000, when NASA designed a weight-based alert system connected to a keychain alarm. Automakers Hyundai and Kia have integrated motion sensors into their vehicles' second and third rows to detect children and pets. Lawmakers have proposed bills, most recently the bipartisan Hot Cars Act of 2019, to require built-in auditory alert systems. Smaller innovations, such as car-seat weight sensors and "smart" clip-on systems, also could help.

All of these solutions have struggled to gain footing, in part, because no parent believes he or she will make this fatal mistake. Acknowledgment and acceptance of the risk would go a long way toward reducing the number of these tragic occurrences. But car companies shouldn't wait to implement lifesaving technology. Companies and caregivers alike need to accept the reality of this problem: This is an accident that nobody is immune to. Just as child-proofing your house does not suggest you might one day drop or hurt your baby, adding safety measures to your vehicle and baby carriers does not mean you are a negligent parent. In fact, it suggests the opposite.


Because a child's body heats up faster than an adult's and because cars trap heat, even mildly warm days can create life-threatening situations for children left unattended. As the effects of extreme climate change worsen and heat waves continue, addressing this is more important than ever.

This editorial is the opinion of The Washington Post's editorial board.

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