Kids and summer car safety

Tragically a toddler died in Milton yesterday after being left in a hot car.

I am going to make a guess about what some of you are thinking, because I used to think it too: How does anyone forget their kid in the car?

But then I read (and warning: this piece is incredibly graphic if also really really well done) Gene Weingarten’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning piece Fatal Distraction, and I learned why it is caring, even organized parents can make that mistake. In brief:

  • Rear-facing carseats, which are great for the much more likely event that one is in a car accident, contribute to children being left in cars, because you don’t see whether there’s a child or not in them from the front seat.
  • The issue is not that “parents forget” their child. It’s more common that something disrupts a really well-worn groove in a parent’s routine, like the daily commute. Driving itself contributes — have you ever driven somewhere with something else on your mind and not really remembered the drive? It’s that neurological state kicking in.
  • Sleep deprivation can play a role: The baby has a cold, both the parent and the baby are tired, the baby falls asleep, that parent doesn’t usually do drop-off or gets a phone call and misses the turn to daycare…. (Yet another reason for not being on the phone in the car.)
  • As caring as we parents all are, we wouldn’t be able to function well if we worried about our kids incessantly while they are in the care of others. So if we think our child is say, at daycare, we won’t be checking in with our memory to see whether we dropped them off or not.


Thankfully a perfect storm of distraction and sleep deprivation or illness and inattention is rare. It’s probably not something you need to worry about, and yet…hearing a story like this, I am glad to have some practical tips to apply. From

  • Put something you need like your purse, cell phone, etc. at the base of the car seat so you are forced to look in the back seat.
  • Keep a large stuffed animal in the child’s carseat and when the child’s in the seat move it to the front passenger seat. (I freely admit I never did this, but if I knew I were suffering from a lack of sleep I might have.)
  • Make arrangements with your child care that you will call if the child isn’t there; ask that they call you if your child does not arrive and they have not heard from you


I’ll add one to this: When we have a change in our usual drop-off routine, my husband and I check in with each other after getting to work to ask how drop-off went, generally just a text message.

Just to round off this slightly fearful topic, I will tell my own story of distraction. When my son was about 9 months old, I was settling a sleepy-him into his carseat when someone approached me for directions. I answered them, got into the driver’s seat and drove off. Sure enough, when I got home, I had not done up his straps. Luckily, we didn’t get into an accident, just like most days.

But it did make me a better parent and person. Not just because I now know to ask people to wait while I finish doing up straps, but because it made me realize that making mistakes, even the kind that we think are completely obvious, is part of being a parent. The vast, vast majority of the time, things work out anyway. The times that don’t are tough, and serve as reminders for the rest of us…but we also need to keep our compassionate selves in place for those families not as lucky. So my deepest sympathy to this family at this terrible time, and I will not be joining in speculation at the water cooler.

Stay safe this summer. We offer our our summer safety guide, including a board game your family can download and play.