Tweeting about the incident later, Underwood said that her brother-in-law was able to safely smash in one of the car windows. They retrieved the troublemaking dogs and baby, and all was well.
Every summer, we hear of incidents of trauma and even death involving small children and cars. Sometimes the situation is like Underwood’s—scary for a moment, but quickly noticed by an adult who can take action; no real harm done. Sometimes children are locked in cars. Sometimes they simply climb in and can’t get the door open again. Other times, the parent forgets the child is even there.
When a child is accidentally locked in a car, there are a few options for outing them safely. One is to have a Lifehammer or a similar tool available, which can be kept in your purse or wallet for just such a purpose. Even small rocks, thrown at the corner of a window, can break the window enough to allow for its removal—after you’ve wrapped your hand in a shirt or towel. Calling 911 can work if the temperature is low, and you expect a very quick response time.
The ways that human beings can accidentally allow their smallest family members to be forgotten while buckled into car seats make for a tragically long list: sleeping babies forgotten, sleep-deprived parents forgetting, lost keys, a sudden change in the regular pick-up or drop-off routine, a cell phone call at just the wrong moment (when the parent is pulling their car into a parking spot) for remembering a silent, small person facing backward, behind the adult.
It’s an understandable impulse to deny this could ever happen to us. I myself felt this way, until it did happen. It was two years ago during one of the most stressful summers of my life. Our oldest son had moved to Long Beach, and my husband and I took our three children still at home, piled in the truck, and drove to see him for the first time. We met up with our oldest son at a large parking lot, close to a diner where we planned to eat lunch. I was exhausted—chronically sleep-deprived from our constantly waking toddler—and in an extremely unhappy period of my (now happy) marriage. In addition to all of this, I had to quit the long-held job my family desperately needed me to keep, and we were agonizingly close to being unable to afford our rent. Stress, fatigue, change in routine—these, according to a now famous Washington Post article, “Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?” by Gene Weingarten, are the common factors leading to children being accidentally left alone in vehicles.
We all piled out of the truck. Our youngest daughter was unusually silent, listening, I suppose, to her family gab. I hadn’t taken notice of her in the last half of the drive, being lost in fatigue and worry. My husband and I both immediately engaged in conversation with our oldest son, having not seen him in some time and eager to direct our attention and support toward him—the first to fly the nest. Somehow, unbelievably so even now, we all walked away from the truck, and left our youngest, the most vulnerable member of our pack, alone in the truck.
How many seconds ticked by as the large group of us walked and talked, loud and boisterous? How must our baby girl have felt, watching our backs? To type it out makes my arms tremble with sickening fear.
And then…”Wait! Wait!” our older daughter cried out and began to turn back. My husband turned with me, and we ran toward the truck—maybe 10 feet—and flung open the door. There was our daughter, strapped into her five-point harness, looking extremely distressed. She reached her arms out to me, and I burst into tears. The feeling I remember most acutely was not one of guilt so much; it was more a terrible, gut-wrenching realization, one of terror at my own failings, those which I could not have predicted. It was fear of the places in my brain that could be, even for one minute, so obstructed and obtuse as to leave a being whose life is more important to me than my own in danger. Fear that no matter how hard I tried, I could fail my children just once in a way that would have serious, life-threatening consequences, and when once is one time too many. We were lucky. So lucky.
It can take only 10 minutes for a car to heat to a dangerous temperature in warm weather, even with the window cracked open.
“If you can forget your wallet, this can happen to you.” These words from “Fatal Distraction” haunt me, as does the explanation of the brain and the failings of memory under certain conditions:
“‘Memory is a machine,’ [memory expert David Diamond] says, ‘and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you’re capable of forgetting your cell phone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child.'”
Weingarten continues, “Diamond is a professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida and a consultant to the veterans hospital in Tampa. He’s here for a national science conference to give a speech about his research, which involves the intersection of emotion, stress and memory. What he’s found is that under some circumstances, the most sophisticated part of our thought-processing center can be held hostage to a competing memory system, a primitive portion of the brain that is—by a design as old as the dinosaur’s—inattentive, pigheaded, nonanalytical, stupid.”
How true those words ring, now.
There are suggested measures to assist parents in remembering their children in car seats, even in stressful, exhausting or extremely distracting circumstances. With the advent of backward-facing car seats (much safer in accidents), the rate of children accidentally left in cars began to rise, so having a set routine—a way to remember, no matter what—is crucial. Here are some recommendations:
– Put something next to your child’s car or booster seat that you can’t leave the car without. Most often suggested is one of your shoes. Easy enough. Slip off one shoe every time you get in the car and toss it back.
– There’s an app for that: Precious Cargo and Kars4Kids Safety. Each takes a handful of seconds to use each time.
– Put a stuffed animal in your child’s car seat. Each time you put your child in the seat, transfer the stuffed animal to the passenger seat or where your gear shift sits, as a visual cue.
– Put the diaper bag on the front seat. This will only work if it’s in the front seat. If you put it on the floorboard, where it’s harder to see, you might miss the cue as you leave the car, especially if you are very distracted or tired.
– Get a baby alert: The Baby Alert system—when activated—sounds an alarm if you move more than 15-feet away from the car while the child is in the car seat.
I often find myself unbuckling our smallest child from her car seat when suddenly I am overwhelmed with a sickening flash of memory: her stricken face, confused and hurt, left alone in the truck. It is a lesson learned one way or another for most parents at some seminal point in parenthood: We can have blind spots in our parenting, where an unexpected or thought-to-be-impossible moment occurs and puts our child at mortal risk. Expect the unexpected. Protect your child, and take measures against the impossible, so it stays that way.