Kids In The Back Seat

The Washington Post has a story about people who accidentally leave their kids in the car, where they die from the heat. I often say that things are worth reading, but this one is more than usually so: for the detail, the understanding, the neurological explanation for how this could happen even to loving and attentive parents, the stories of how, incomprehensibly, the parents who do this go on living. It’s really, really good, and really, really tough to read. But it’s worth it.

I remember the first time I heard about someone who had done this. I have a vivid imagination, and the idea of a child slowly baking to death in a carseat, of the moment when the parent realized what he or she had done, of all the moments of apparent normalcy that preceded it, of how you could possibly try to live with the knowledge that you had done that, or (a quite different form of torment) that your spouse had — one ghastly detail after another kept unfolding in my mind, each of them revealing new and unexpected dimensions of horror. But for all that, I know that I cannot begin to imagine this.

A molecular physiologist quoted in the Post story explains how it happens:

“The human brain, he says, is a magnificent but jury-rigged device in which newer and more sophisticated structures sit atop a junk heap of prototype brains still used by lower species. At the top of the device are the smartest and most nimble parts: the prefrontal cortex, which thinks and analyzes, and the hippocampus, which makes and holds on to our immediate memories. At the bottom is the basal ganglia, nearly identical to the brains of lizards, controlling voluntary but barely conscious actions.

Diamond says that in situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of auxiliary autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant but efficient basal ganglia is operating the car; that’s why you’ll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made or the scenery you saw.

Ordinarily, says Diamond, this delegation of duty “works beautifully, like a symphony. But sometimes, it turns into the ‘1812 Overture.’ The cannons take over and overwhelm.” (…)

The quality of prior parental care seems to be irrelevant,” he said. “The important factors that keep showing up involve a combination of stress, emotion, lack of sleep and change in routine, where the basal ganglia is trying to do what it’s supposed to do, and the conscious mind is too weakened to resist. What happens is that the memory circuits in a vulnerable hippocampus literally get overwritten, like with a computer program. Unless the memory circuit is rebooted — such as if the child cries, or, you know, if the wife mentions the child in the back — it can entirely disappear.”

I believe this now, as I sit here writing this post. I do not think I would be able to believe it if I had left my child to die. In that situation, I don’t think that all the neurological evidence in the world would convince me. But, as I said, I can’t imagine.


Here’s one detail from the article:

“For years, Fennell [head of a group called Kids and Cars — ed.] has been lobbying for a law requiring back-seat sensors in new cars, sensors that would sound an alarm if a child’s weight remained in the seat after the ignition is turned off. Last year, she almost succeeded. 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.”

Can you imagine being the lobbyist who went to work against that? Or the executive who decided to hire that lobbyist? How would you explain to yourself, let alone to others, that you have deliberately tried to block a measure that would prevent infants and toddlers from being cooked alive in cars? Unless adding a sensor would cause some truly horrific problem for the car, it’s hard to see how you could look yourself in the mirror.

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