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Forgetting a child in a hot car can happen to anyone, experts say

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2019-05-13 Andrea Ross

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 (Provided by Global News)

Leaving a child in a hot car is an inconceivable thought, but it's a potentially tragic mistake one expert says could happen to anyone.

On Thursday, a 16-month-old boy died after being left for hours in a car in Burnaby during an unseasonably warm day. The boy's father was found at the scene, and no charges have been laid.

Instances like these are often a tragic case of forgetfulness and highlight the faults of the human brain, said David Diamond, a professor at the University of South Florida who has spent 15 years studying how a parent could forget their child in a hot car.

a man sitting in a chair: Tech expert Graham Williams says apps like Precious Cargo, Kars4Kids and Waze use Bluetooth technology to tell parents their child is in the back seat. © Maria Sbytova/Shutterstock Tech expert Graham Williams says apps like Precious Cargo, Kars4Kids and Waze use Bluetooth technology to tell parents their child is in the back seat.

On average, 37 children die this way in the U.S. each year, according to KidsandCars.org, which tracks this data. No data is available for Canada.

Diamond says our brains can fail us in several ways when we are busy, multitasking or going through our daily routine on "autopilot."

People often assume that because something is important, it will stay at the top of their minds, Diamond said. But even a slight change in routine can cause a busy parent with a sleeping child in the back seat to forget to stop at daycare, he said.

"Once we've lost awareness and passed daycare and we arrive at that destination, somehow the brain fills in that void," he said.

"So when the person exits the car and the child is still in the car, the brain has somehow created this false memory that, 'Well, we're at our destination, we must have taken our child to daycare.'"

This lapse in memory has nothing to do with how much they love their child, he added.

Also watch: B.C. looks at measures to prevent hot car deaths (Provided by Global News)

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"It cuts across every category of humanity. I have seen this happen to white collar workers, blue collar workers, young, old, men and women," Diamond said. 

"Universally, this happens to really good parents."

Deona Ryan-Bien's four-year-old daughter, Aslyn Paige Ryan, died in 2004 when a babysitter forgot her in a hot car.

Much of that day's routine was thrown off, she told CBC's News Network: she had started a new job, she was in a new vehicle, and her daughter was dropped off with a babysitter at a different time.

"If you can drive to a destination and you can't really remember how you got there, and you know you went through red lights or stop signs to even get there, that's as easy as it is to really lose track of what you're doing in a day," she said.

Preventing tragedy

Ryan-Bien says putting something you need in the back seat, like a shoe, a phone or a purse, can remind you that your child is there.

Graham Williams, a tech expert with GetConnected, says apps like Precious Cargo, Kars4Kids and Waze can also remind parents their child is in the back seat.

The apps use a cellphone's Bluetooth technology to connect to a car radio.

"When the car turns off, it triggers that app to send you a reminder to say, 'Hey, look, your kid's still in the back of the car, don't forget them,'" he said. 

Some car makers, like Tesla, have even developed climate control that remains on if it detects a child or pet is still inside the vehicle, Williams said.

If vehicles can signal drivers to turn off the headlights, Diamond says technology should do the same to remind us of the child in the back seat.

"We have to have that same kind of reminder," he said.

"We don't want a dead battery, we don't want a dead child."

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