Leaving children in cars, fateful mistake

How could this have happened?

That's the question that many parents, no doubt, asked themselves following the death of 15-month-old Benjamin Seitz in Ridgefield earlier this week. The toddler died after his father, Kyle Seitz, reportedly forgot him in the back set of his car, and he was left there for hours while Kyle was at work. It's a horrific, preventable tragedy that's caused many to shake their heads, wondering how a parent could forget his child.

According to medical experts, it's easier than you might think.

"We all find this horrifying, because we all realize that this could be us," said Dr. Carl Baum, attending physician in the pediatric emergency department, of Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital.

Experts said there's often a perfect storm of factors that allow tragedies like this to happen, such as the many distractions of daily life, a break in a routine or the mere fact that a baby in a rear-facing carseat in the backseat can be hard to see.

Baum blames the phenomenon on multitasking -- such as driving a car while talking on a phone and simultaneously thinking about some other task entirely.

"We live in a distracting world," he said. "People have a perception that, when they do a lot of things, they're doing them well."

The reality, he said, is that doing so many tasks at once divides one's attention, allowing tragic oversights to occur.

More Information
How heat rises
Cars parked in direct sunlight can reach internal temperatures of up to 131 to 172 degrees Fahrenheit when outside temperatures are 80 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
The temperature inside a car rises about 20 degrees for every 10 minutes it's outside.
When the outside temperature is 83 degrees, the inside temperature of the car can reach 109 degrees in as little as 15 minutes, even with the window slightly rolled down.
When outside temperatures are in the 60s a car temperature can still rise well above 110 degrees.
Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Association

Benjamin Seitz's death is just one of several recent high-profile cases of children left behind in hot cars. Another is the death of 22-month-old Cooper Harris, of Atlanta, Ga., who died June 18 after being left in his father's car all day. In that case, there's some question whether the death might have been intentional.

Though the media attention given to these cases might make them seem like a common occurrence, this is a phenomenon that's relatively rare.

Since 1998 about 622 children have died of heatstroke after being left in cars, average of 38 children a year, according to research from the San Francisco State University Department of Geosciences. In 50 percent of these deaths, parents or other caregivers simply forgot the child was in the car. Last year, there were 44 such cases. Contrast that to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which kills an average of 2,000 children a year.

But its rarity doesn't make it any less of a tragedy, said Susan Dieterich, clinical psychologist with St. Vincent's Behavioral Health in Westport.

"It's infrequent, but unbearable," she said.

Dieterich echoed Baum's thoughts that the many responsibilities of modern parenting can play a role in these deadly mistakes. When a parents are going about their daily tasks, she said, their higher brain functions are focusing on whatever it is they have to do next, while the lower brain functions are focused on the mechanics of driving the car. As unfathomable as it seems, Dieterich said, this division of brain function can lead a parent to forget the child is in the car -- particularly if the child is asleep.

Another possible factor in these horrifying incidents is a break in routine -- for instance, if one parent usually drops off a child at day care and is forced by circumstance to shift the responsibility to someone else for the day. So often, the brain runs on autopilot and it can be hard to break out of that pre-scripted behavior, said Kevin Borrup, associate director of the injury prevention center at Connecticut Children's Medical Center. As an example, he used a deceptively benign scenario.

"When you always leave your keys in the same place, and then you one day leave them in a different place and forget where you put them," he said.

By that same token, a parent who isn't used to bringing a child to day care might drive right by the facility. It's one thing if the child being driven is old enough to notice the mistake, Borrup said.

"Older kids will remind you and laugh at your mistake," he said. But when the child in question is a baby, that simple mistake can have awful consequences.

There are ways parents can train themselves to make sure they look in the back seat before leaving the car. Experts suggest leaving something you need on the back seat next to a child, like a cellphone, which most people use throughout the day, or a shoe, or the key fob that locks the car door.

"It's just one more layer of protection to prevent us from leaving a child in the car," Baum said.

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