April 12, 2010

Get In The Habit Of Checking Whether Your Kid Is In The Back Seat

It's spring, not too hot yet. And the Gene Weingarten's March 2009 story for the Washington Post just won the Pulitzer Prize. Which makes it an excellent time for every parent to get in the habit of checking, every single time they get out of the car, to see if your kid is in the back seat:

So, if it's not manslaughter, what is it? An accident?

"No, that's an imperfect word."

This is Mark Warschauer, an internationally acclaimed expert in language learning and technology, professor of education at the University of California at Irvine.

"The word 'accident' makes it sound like it can't be prevented," Warschauer says, "but 'incident' makes it sound trivial. And it is not trivial."

Warschauer is a Fulbright scholar, specializing in the use of laptops to spread literacy to children. In the summer of 2003, he returned to his office from lunch to find a crowd surrounding a car in the parking lot. Police had smashed the window open with a crowbar. Only as he got closer did Warschauer realize it was his car. That was his first clue that he'd forgotten to drop his 10-month-old son, Mikey, at day care that morning. Mikey was dead.

The 2008 Cameron Gulbransen Kids' Transportation Safety Act -- which requires safety improvements in power windows and in rear visibility, and protections against a child accidentally setting a car in motion -- originally had a rear seat-sensor requirement, too. It never made the final bill; sponsors withdrew it, fearing they couldn't get it past a powerful auto manufacturers' lobby.
As far as I can tell, there is no current legislative effort to require rear seat sensors or alarms that could prevent this type of infant death.

Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime? [washingtonpost.com]


This story was just devastating and has haunted me ever since I first read it. I was probably two sentences in when I started saying to myself "don't read this, don't read this, it's gonna freak. you. out." but I couldn't stop because it was so well written.

It's startling how fast a car in the sun heats up to 120-130 degrees. One of the local papers in the Hudson Valley did a story in 2005, and they actually measured the heat buildup:

Hot topic: a tragedy waiting to happen
By Jeremiah Horrigan
Times Herald-Record - July 12, 2005

Here's a bit of summertime advice you should take to heart: Don't ever, under any circumstances, leave a child alone in a car.
That may seem self-evident to you, but since 1998, the parents of 230 children across the country discovered to their grief that a "quick stop" at a convenience store or shopping mall can result in tragedy.
These simple statistics from a new Stanford University study tells you everything you need to know about how dangerous such a quick stop can be.
- The temperature inside a car parked in the sun rises, on average, 3.2 degrees every five minutes – regardless of the temperature outside.
- After an hour, the lowest interior temperature recorded in the study was 117 degrees.
- On really hot days like yesterday, other studies have shown that a car's internal temperatures quickly reached 134 to 154 degrees.
The study also debunked the common belief that cracking open a car window will help relieve the threat of the gathering heat. Cracking a window had a negligible effect on interior temperatures, the study found. The threat isn't of asphyxiation but of hyperthermia or heat stroke, the study notes.
In an experiment conducted by the Times Herald-Record yesterday, a car was parked in half shade and sun shortly after noon. Three windows were rolled down slightly. In the span of 20 minutes, the interior temperature climbed 52 degrees to 130.1 degrees.
* * *
How we did this story

A blue Focus was parked on Mulberry Street in part shade and part sun at 12:08 p.m. The air conditioning was turned on for about 10 minutes. A digital thermometer, with a sensor placed on a child's booster seat, was positioned inside.
The temperature inside the car at that point was 78 degrees. Three windows were rolled down 1.5 inches. In the span of 20 minutes, the temperature climbed 52 degrees.
12:08: 78 degrees
12:09: 81 degrees
12:10: 98 degrees
12:11: 102.7 degrees
12:12: 111.7 degrees
12:13: 113 degrees
12:14: 120 degrees
12:15: 122 degrees
12:16: 125.1 degrees
12:18: 126 degrees
12:20: 127 degrees
12:26: 129 degrees
12:28: 130.1 degrees

So, two thoughts on how to help prevent heat deaths:

- challenge the technologically adept. Invite, say, MIT and CIT students (especially those who are parents) to a competition. The challenge: build a safety device for under $10. For instance, a car seat that responds to heat in the car and weight in the seat by broadcasting the same code used by the panic button on your key.

- market safety awareness to those who market safety. Invite a car dealer, say, Subaru to sponsor an hourly weather report that includes the temperature of a car parked in the sun and reminds parents of the importance of keeping their children safe, and then talk about other things that make their cars safer because they care about safety.

One more source of info on car heat deaths - Jan Null, a meteorologist at SF State University has worked tirelessly to promote awareness.

I read that when it came out, despite my better judgment. It's a devastating piece and deserves the accolade.

It really made clear how these cases aren't a matter of neglectful parents or uninformed parents, but just parents who make one, awful mistake. Hopefully Wiegarten's article has inspired some parents to be more vigilant, to develop some habits that make these deaths less likely. I can imagine that the parents profiled in the article may take some small measure of solace from that.

Think this guy also forgot to check the back seat?

Poor taste in a comment thread about such a sad case, I suppose....

Hah, no, he falls into the should be prosecuted column. And he lives in freakin' Dallas, might as well strap the kids to the engine block.

@micah, what? Should have brought the kind IN to the strip club?

There are actually a few devices that could prevent these horrific accidents from happening. My first choice would be the one from NASA ($20): http://www.4rkidssake.org/NASAdevice.htm *if* it was available. Sadly, it looks like they're still searching for a company to license it (can you imagine?! The technology is there, the product is available to us..BUT NO ONE'S STEPPED FORWARD YET! Its been 8 years already!)

Then there's the Halo ($150): http://www.sistersofinvention.com/index.html , the ChildMinder ($70+): http://www.babyalert.info/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=1 , the Cars-N-Kids Child Baby Infant Car Seat Safety Monitor ($40): http://www.amazon.com/Cars-N-Kids-Child-Infant-Safety-Monitor/dp/B001H7ZZ7S and finally the decidely low-tech: Baby Safety Line by Kidz Innovations ($10): http://www.babysafetyline.com/3.html (which personally I can see myself forgetting to clip back on).

There are patents too: http://www.faqs.org/patents/app/20080309493 and http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/6924742/claims.html

Your idea is a brilliant one. Get those tech schools to design something affordable for eveyone [to be able to purchase in multiples for grandparents and babysitters' cars too].

Can you tell I'm one freaked out [and frustrated-by-lack-of-action] mama who lives in a hot, southern state and whose baby is watched by grandparents sometimes???

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