When our son was a toddler, we rented an Outer Banks vacation house that had a pool. Worried that he might wander through the gate and fall in, I ordered an expensive floating alarm designed to siren loudly when the surface of the water was breached.
When we arrived, we set up the alarm and tested it. Yes, the siren was loud.
But I didn’t trust it. That first day, we went out and bought a padlock and placed it high on the gate. And still I didn’t sleep very well that week; all of my brain and one of my eyes and both ears were always on alert to the “What if?”
I’m thinking of this now because of all the recent news of children dying in hot cars. Used to be we’d hear about one such horrifically sad case every year or so. Now, it’s happening often enough that this morning on the “Today” show, a reporter gave a demonstration of how to bash out the window of a locked, hot car in order to save a baby. What was once a mercifully freakish and nearly unheard-of parental lapse has become, while certainly not common, enough of a societal problem that morning news shows are pointing out the weakest spot on a car window (it’s the bottom right corner).
The Department of Geosciences at San Francisco State University is on the case, conducting studies that show that since 1998, 600 children have died in hot cars, half of them the result of parents forgetting they were there. Last year, there were 36 hot-car deaths.
I understand as well as anyone the pressures of parenting, and I’ve been guilty of my own lapses. But really, how distracted can we allow ourselves to get? I’ve forgotten an expensive 12-pack of steaks in the hot car, and we all know what becomes of a wet beach towel on a hot afternoon, but a baby?
Experts studying this problem blame a couple of things: the increasingly busy lives of parents, and rear-facing car seats. While it can be argued that a sleeping baby facing away from the driver may be less obvious than a noisy one facing forward, any glance into the rear-view mirror would indicate there’s something back there. In the most publicized cases, parents have said the accidents happened on days when the family was out of their regular routine, say, with a father dropping off a baby at day care when the mother normally would.
These stories are excruciating to see; we all have moments of absentmindedness, and your heart breaks for these parents. How do they even go on?
But it is absurd to attribute these senseless deaths to the predictable and understandable chaos of modern life. Have we become so accepting of multitasking that the bi-weekly deaths of forgotten babies are being folded into our lives as just another troubling cultural development?
It would be easy to blame technology for this. No longer do we just get into a car, drive to the destination, put it into park and get out. Now, we drive, check email at the red light, check a few texts, make a phone call, check last night’s scores and post a cute photo of the baby. Who happens to be in the back seat, sleeping.
Future models of cars will include special alarms to remind us there’s a “Baby on Board,” just as current models have special back-up cameras and alarms. There’s nothing wrong with technology that helps keep us safe. But the very necessity of these gadgets should tell us something about how far gone we are.
In the wake of the most recent child deaths, some experts suggest the driver always remove her left shoe and place it in the back seat, as a reminder.
A reminder that they have a baby? Who forgets that kind of thing?
Beth Dolinar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.