Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hot Car Child Deaths and Distracted Parenting


On the one hand, it's hard to tell which is worse:

The evil of a parent who intentionally murders their child?

Or the profound absent-mindedness of a parent who unintentionally leaves their child in a car to suffocate in the heat.

One is more criminal than the other, based on degrees of intent and sheer neglegence.  But either way, the child comes out on the losing end of that parental relationship.  And while one of the parents spends the rest of their life in jail, the other spends the rest of their life racked with guilt and ignominy.

Which is worse?

On the other hand, while both the intentional murder of children and the suffocation of children in hot vehicles can be prevented, it's a lot easier to prevent the latter, rather than the former.  And although cases like the current one in Georgia, where a Home Depot corporate employee's child died in his SUV while he spent the day at work, get a lot of publicity, they're still relatively rare, considering the number of kids who get shuttled around every day.

According to the non-profit advocacy group KidsAndCars.org, an average of 38 children die in locked vehicles every year in the United States.  Maybe that doesn't sound like a lot to you, but consider this:  in 1990, the average was five.  Besides, numbers and statistics don't mean anything if a loved one of yours is affected by this type of tragedy.

Especially one that is so preventable.

If you want a more startling number, try this one:  619.  That's the number of kids left in cars who've died of heatstroke just since 1998.

Now, I'm not a parent, and I usually refrain from writing about parental and child-rearing issues, but I don't think I'm unqualified to evaluate this issue, particularly since every parent I know spends every waking hour of their days knowing they've got kids.  I mean, I can't imagine how hard it must be for a parent to forget they've got a child in their vehicle.  My brother and sister-in-law talked with their children in their family vehicles all the time.  Maybe other parents don't?  Back in the day, my own parents seemed to have been always glancing into the rear-view mirror and asking "what are you doing now?" as if my brother and I were always up to something when we were kids.

Of course, seat belt use was rare in those days, and car seats for infants and toddlers were practically non-existent.  KidsAndCars.org believes rear-facing car seats deserve a lot of the blame for the rise in heat-related child suffocation deaths in vehicles, since the number of instances has risen sharply since their use has been mandated by law.  Because of how they're built, rear-facing car seats can prevent a casual observer in a front seat from verifying if the car seat is occupied.

Automatic air bags are also targeted by KidsAndCars.org, because before they became standard equipment in all cars, lots of parents had been setting up car seats in the passenger seat.  After air bags became law in 1995, parents began using rear seats for transporting their small children, since the force of a deploying airbag can be quite dangerous - even for adults.  But because air bags can be credited with saving a lot of lives, their drawbacks have become part of the price we pay for automotive safety, and car seats aren't going to be returning to the front seat any time soon.

There's also the question of whether the heavily-tinted windows that come standard on a lot of vehicles - particularly SUV's - can prevent an exiting parent from seeing that somebody is still in a car seat.

But I still go back to my question about how parents forget they've got a kid in their car to begin with.

My parents, my brother and his wife, and every other family I've ever ridden with knows that the children in our vehicle need to be accommodated.  In fact, virtually everything about the ride ends up revolving around the kids.  If we play the radio, we have to play it so they can hear it, or so they can nap (which means we can't hear it).  If the air conditioner is on, we periodically check the temperature in the back to make sure the kids aren't sweltering or freezing.  Drivers tend to try and take fewer risks when they're driving kids in traffic - or at least, they should.  Plus, you're either on your way to something for the kids, or to something that isn't for the kids, and you have to drop them off someplace else first.  Both ways, it's very hard to forget the kids, right?  Even if they're fast asleep.

I mean:  you're a parent.  This isn't some surprise passenger in your car.  Can parents truly zone out and forget they've got a kid in their car?  Maybe if your life is impossibly stressful, or you just got some horrible news, you could forget.  The way some people become so engrossed in their cell phone conversations, I suppose it would be easy to forget basic things - shucks, I see drivers on their phones forgetting how to drive all the time!  But still... this is your kid in the back seat!  Even if you don't take her to daycare every day, wouldn't the uniqueness of the day you do be enough to remind you?

One of the reasons these cases end up attracting so much attention, I suppose, is because so many parents wonder themselves:  how does this happen?  Most parents probably can't imagine a scenario in which they'd forget their kid in their car.  How incompetent does a parent have to be to do such a thing?  What else have they forgotten to do for their kid?

As for the case in Georgia, law enforcement officials suspect the dad may have had criminal intent in the death of his son.  They say the two dined at a Chick-fil-A restaurant for breakfast just a mile from Home Depot's corporate office.  The question that becomes apparent is whether a parent can forget they've got their kid in the car during a one-mile trip.  There's also evidence that the dad went out to his SUV during his workday, and returned to the office.  How many kids left alone, strapped into a car seat, aren't squealing or making some other commotion when they next see their parent?  How could the dad have missed that?  Was the little boy already passed out?  Or already dead?

Did this dad intend to kill his young son?  As of today, the dad is in jail without bond.  Police have said that there are inconsistencies between the accounts he's given to various investigators.  Nevertheless, there's enough doubt about his criminal guilt around Atlanta for sympathetic people to have already donated $20,000 in support of the family.  Apparently, a lot of people believe this is all a tragic mistake.

Okay, so let's take it as that.  Frankly, I know a number of computer techies, which is what this dad did for his job at Home Depot.  They're great people, but if you get them going on a technical question, they can seriously zone out from everything else to concentrate on an answer.  We know about distracted driving.  Maybe this is a case of distracted parenting.

Then there are the folks who say that it's easy to fix such distractions, such as whatever this technology-focused dad may have fallen for, or a cell phone conversation, et cetera.  Put a diaper bag on the passenger seat to remind you of your toddler in the back seat, they say.  Put something on your door to remind you to check the back seat.  Put a small Post-It note on your rear-view mirror.  But hey - if you're going to forget your kid in the back seat, how likely are you to remember to rig simple gimmicks to avoid doing it in the first place?  How disciplined are you going to be to install your reminder before every trip with your kid?

And there's still this question:  If you can forget your kid in the back seat, what else are you forgetting to do for him or her?   How much complacency can survive such parenting styles before you're a dangerous parent to your child?

For this family in suburban Atlanta, there are no easy answers, no matter what caused what happened.  About the only good that can come out of stories like this is if such news can prompt parents to double-check their kids in the back seats of their vehicles.  Hey - why not make it a habit?  Let it become your distraction.

After all, distractions evolve from split-second evaluations we make for what is most important at that particular time.  The cause of a distraction may be beyond our control, but is the priority we give to that distraction?

I'm not a parent, but I'm told kids can make for valuable distractions.


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