Preventing baby-left-in-car deaths – suggestions from aviation

It’s a very hot summer, and that brings babies dying of heatstroke after they are accidentally left in a parent’s car. Years ago I thought “I could never make such a stupid mistake,” but after the research I’ve been doing on aviation safety, I no longer believe it. My own children are grown up, but many of my former students have small children, and it’s a terrible tragedy for anyone. So I’ve been thinking about how to reduce the incidence, using ideas from aviation.

<rant> One quick pet peeve: if you see someone’s  kid in a back seat looking unconscious, don’t stand around calling 911. Break the damned window and get them out! Yell at someone else to call 911I’ve seen multiple articles about people standing around in parking lots! </rant>

There are 30+ such deaths each year in the US, plus many more pet deaths. One factor is that current recommendation is to put babies in rear seats instead of front seats, and rear-facing if they are small. So if they fall asleep, there can be very little cue that you are carrying a child. Here’s a woman who apparently drove around dropping off other children, then worked in her house for the day, all with her infant in the back of her minivan. How could anyone be so stupid? Well, pilots do equivalently forgetful things when it’s their own life that is on the line. A few years ago, a UC prof accidentally followed a pre-baby commuting pattern and forgot to drop off his child at daycare.

Warschauer explained that his son was sleeping in a rear-facing car seat in the back seat. He said he was not concentrating and made a wrong turn at an intersection that led him straight to UC Irvine by habit, as he has done for 2 1/2 years.

And he said he had been up all night helping his wife with a project.

“I torture myself again and again as to how I could do such a thing,” Warschauer wrote. “I got out of the car without remembering he was there … and shattered all our dreams…. I accept 100% blame for this tragic accident.”

Other incidents so far in 2012 are here and a discussion of prosecution patterns here. So, it can happen to you. But you can greatly reduce the probability.

Airlines have been been very successful over the last 50 years in reducing accidents caused by “forgetting” and carelessness. The aviation checklist (1937) was a key tool, and it is still being refined. After I lost a few too many jackets/cell phones on airplanes or TSA stops, I set up a mental routine, in which I enumerate and account for every package I brought. Note that when going through a TSA check, there are lots of distractions e.g. worrying about missing the plane, “will they care that I didn’t package my shampoo properly?”, checking out the other passengers to guess which line will move faster, and so forth. I still make mistakes, but I catch more of them.

A formal written checklist on your dash is probably not a bad idea, but since getting out of a car varies a lot, it has to be flexible. It could go something like this:

  • Note where I’m parked so I can find my way back
  • Do I need to feed a parking meter? Get change ready.
  • Open windows a crack if in the sun
  • Secure sunglasses
  • Oh yes, did I bring a baby? Look in back seat to be certain.
  • If Yes, open front passenger door and leave it open until all children have been removed from car. This provides an unmistakable visual cue to you and everyone around that something is unusual.
    • Open baby’s car door.
    • Secure baby stuff into baby bag (bottles diapers ….)
    • Remove and set up stroller, still with baby and extra doors open.
    • Remove baby, put in stroller/carrier/whatever
    • Close baby door.
    • Feed parking meter
    • Last visual check
  • Close front passenger door. Only close last door after all children out of car.

There are obvious problems with this sequence – juggling multiple objects, while older child is about to run off, baby is crying, phone is ringing…. That’s why pilots make errors. And the list needs modification when you are arriving at home. Your goal is to set up a robust procedure that will absolutely prevent you from making this fatal mistake, no matter what else is happening around you.

Here are some simpler suggestions along the same lines.

  1. Put your purse or wallet in the backseat.
  2. Store something large in the carseat and move it to the front seat when baby’s buckled in.
  3. Hang something on your rearview mirror when you have a child in the car.

By the way, does a checklist have to be written down? The British in WW II did not write them down, they just made the trainee memorize them. This is bad. The goal of the checklist is to provide certainty when you are distracted, upset, busy, in a new car that you rarely drive, etc. Relying on memory in those situations is not reliable.

The odds, of course, are wildly in your favor – about as many are killed by lightning each year as by being left in a hot car (in the US). But we don’t let our kids play outdoors in thunderstorms, do we?

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