Our children, our memory and our cars: a fatal triangle?

I may never stop weeping after reading The Washington Post’s feature, “Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?”  It was published in 2009, but the heartbreaking stories of children who died as a result of an accidental moment of forgetfulness are not isolated incidents. There were two news stories this past week of infants or small children left to die in cars, including a girl who was left in a daycare van during a group trip, which has prompted much discussion again about responsibility, prevention and accountability.

I expressed my shock about this trend in a Facebook post, and some people mistakenly assumed I was being judgmental towards the parents. We’re not talking here about the people who use their car as a daycare option, or leave their children locked in the car while they go shopping. Those people are irresponsible and are a danger to the welfare of their children.

Let me be clear about this: there is not a single parent among us who (a) doesn’t fear such an unthinkable thing happening to their child and (b) who is safe from such a thing ever potentially happening if they own a car and are responsible for taking their child from one place to another. I am one of those parents, so how can I judge otherwise loving, responsible, normal people for what is clearly a terrible, unspeakable tragedy?

My frustration lies in the chaotic busyness of our lives. We are always running from one thing to another – to and from daycare/school/camp, to and from work and other errands. We are constantly being bombarded with diversions and competing priorities, whether it’s our phones, traffic or just trying to keep the impossible crush of “things to do” in some semblance of order in our heads.

There are some days where I get up to do something, walk across the room and forget what it was that I got up to do. Some of it is because I’m usually overwhelmed with trying to balance work, family and other responsibilities. My memory issues have gotten worse since my daughter was born. A combination of long-term sleep deprivation and PTSD from birth trauma has rendered my brain into Swiss cheese. I have a harder time staying focused. I do the best I can and try to invoke mindfulness.

And I don’t think I’m alone. I hear a lot of people say the same thing, to varying degrees. We’re all treading water all day long.  Our brains are remarkably complex mechanisms, but their functioning is also subjected to its internal and external environment. As the Washington Post article points out, stress combined with unexpected changes or other competing stimuli “can weaken the brain’s higher-functioning centers, making them more susceptible to bullying from the basal ganglia.” In other words, we simply begin functioning on a kind of auto-pilot. Many of us are doing this more frequently in an effort to just get through the day. It’s not healthy physically, mentally or emotionally and it can lead to tragedy.

Do I think backseat sensors would help? Yes. After all, my car has a front seat sensor that goes off if it thinks there’s someone in the seat who is not buckled in. Apparently, automakers are resisting the back seat technology because they’re concerned about potential liability if the sensor fails. Think about that the next time you strap your baby or toddler into their carseat. On the nightly news, reporters were recommending parents should leave their phones, purses (or laptop cases/briefcases) in the backseat of the car as a reinforcement reminder instead.

Our own insanely busy lives have reduced us to this. But if you’re smart, you’ll do it.

And this is why.

A memory surfaced this morning as I was driving my daughter to her care provider. My husband told me once about the morning he drove all the way to work before he realized his son was still in the backseat. He was so exhausted, stressed out and lost in thought that he forgot to stop at the daycare center. As he turned off the car in the parking garage at work, my stepson, who was a toddler at the time piped up, “Hi Daddy!”

My husband is an internet marketing professional for a health care organization. He is exceedingly smart, hardworking and responsible. He is fiercely devoted to his children and shares the responsibility for their everyday care. There is no one in this world this man loves more than his son and daughter. Sound familiar? Yes, he is just like those parents who accidentally left their children in the car.

It could be any of us, at any time.

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