It can happen to anyone. It happens to doctors, judges, rocket scientists, college professors, to the people we trust most as a society with our children—principals, teachers and day care workers—to mothers and fathers who take all precautions to protect their children.
"You look into some of these parents and they’re the best people, pillars of our society,” says Janette Fennell, founder and president of kidsandcars.org. “You don’t want to find out the hard way that this can happen to anyone."
There have been more than 755 children who died in hot cars in the U.S. since 1990, according to data provided by kidsandcars.org. 2010 proved to be the most deadly year with 49 deaths, 13 of which were in Texas.
Dr. David Diamond has studied the inner workings of the human mind since 2004—specifically how our brains allow us to commit such a horrific act as forgetting a child in a hot car. Diamond is a neuroscientist and professor with the University of South Florida who coined the term “forgotten baby syndrome,” the mental process that leads to people to forget.
Diamond says it centers around two systems in our brains: habit memory and prospective memory. Habit memories, he says, are based on actions that are performed on a day-to-day basis that become second nature. It’s how we can drive home from work without much thought. Prospective memories, he says, are the preparations we make to carrying out an act, such as planning a stop at the store on the way home from work.
There’s an entire science behind it, the inner workings of our minds, but when it’s all stripped down, Diamond says it’s a matter of our habit memories, the routines we run every day, overruling our prospective memories, the added steps we’re not accustom to. Forgetting that extra step is as easy as walking to your car thinking about your day, or answering a phone call during the drive that shifts your mind’s gears, allowing the habit-memory system to take over. During the transition, Diamond says our minds can create a false memory of completing the task.
Parents have been forgetting their children in hot cars for nearly 30 years, according to kidsandcars.org. It’s an unthinkable tragedy that began to spike in the mid-1990s, a time when experts recommended car seats and young children be moved to the backseat due to the potential deadly dangers of passenger-side airbags.
The effects of the new laws meant to protect children ultimately put them out of sight and, in the most extreme cases, out of mind for parents.