Fatal Distraction
March 7, 2009 1:57 PM   Subscribe

Fatal Distraction. The lead story in this Sunday's Washington Post Magazine. "Forgetting a child in the back seat of a hot, parked car is a horrifying, inexcusable mistake. But is it a crime?". By Gene Weingarten.

This is one of the finest pieces of human-interest journalism I've ever read. Fascinating, heartbreakingly sad, and disturbing in parts.
posted by Ike_Arumba (296 comments total) 83 users marked this as a favorite

 
I felt sick to the pit of my stomach when I got to the bit about the guy turning off the motion-activated car alarm three times.
posted by gene_machine at 2:06 PM on March 7, 2009


This is so heartbreaking I don't know if I can read past page three.
posted by Brainy at 2:07 PM on March 7, 2009


Define "inexcusable" and I'll tell you if it's a crime.
posted by DU at 2:10 PM on March 7, 2009


Running down a pedestrian with a speeding car is a horrifying, inexcusable mistake. But is it a crime?

Generally, yes. It is manslaughter, the same as the charge here. I do see that you might make a case that when you've killed your own child, that is punishment enough. However, I believe it's better for the law to begin with the criminal charge and let the court ultimately decide because not all circumstances will be the same.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 2:15 PM on March 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


For the first time ever I'm thinking of getting a tattoo, on my hand, one reminding me to check the back seat.
posted by fleetmouse at 2:18 PM on March 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


The prosecutors in these cases must be real dickheads. Each of these parents has suffered more in this life than any of us could remotely conceive. But lets twist the knife of government just a little more and extract our personal pound of flesh for all the dead babies. Sounds like a plan, huh?
posted by Xurando at 2:19 PM on March 7, 2009 [10 favorites]


However, I believe it's better for the law to begin with the criminal charge and let the court ultimately decide because not all circumstances will be the same.

It's very clear you didn't read the article. This is about kind and loving parents who made a simple mistake. There is no crime.
posted by TypographicalError at 2:20 PM on March 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


I read the article and I kind of see where CheeseDigestsAll is coming from, but I simply couldn't imagine a judge or jury who'd have the heart to criminally convict one of these parents. It seems to me that if you did want to legally punish them in some way, they could be fined and have the money go towards preventative technology like the one from the NASA guys mentioned towards the end of the article.
posted by mannequito at 2:25 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


.
posted by limeonaire at 2:28 PM on March 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


Define "inexcusable" and I'll tell you if it's a crime.

Sarcasm, meaning feigning interest in your bag.
posted by Mblue at 2:30 PM on March 7, 2009


Yes.

Next question?
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:38 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


How difficult/expensive would it be to build a system in cars that addressed this problem?
A sensor in a car seat that would recognize it was in use. - Car will not start until seat is manually activated. Ignition is opened, an alarm goes off if a car door is opened before the seat is deactivated.
The only way out of the car without setting off the alarm is to address the issue of the child in the car seat.
posted by notreally at 2:38 PM on March 7, 2009 [12 favorites]


Without intent there is no crime. So, no.
posted by killdevil at 2:40 PM on March 7, 2009 [8 favorites]


This must be the absolute definition of heartbreaking and I wish the parents any small measure of peace possible.

With regard to the article itself, I will say that although I often now skip Gene Weingarten's humor column (for which he is perhaps best known), I appreciate that his serious pieces are consistently excellent.
posted by Morrigan at 2:41 PM on March 7, 2009


I cannot imagine the inner strength of these people. If I did this to my dog, I would kill myself. No amount of sedation, therapy or custody would do anything but delay the inevitable. How much worse would it be when it was your own child?

It seems as if a device needs to be implemented into the car seat itself, if people won't buy one and manufacturers won't build one. Luckily my dog has a constant PICK ME UP alarm which is on at all times in the driving process.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:41 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow. I got to the end - the part about Lyn Balfour's plan - and... wow. Words fail me. That's amazing.
posted by Addlepated at 2:42 PM on March 7, 2009 [15 favorites]


How difficult/expensive would it be to build a system in cars that addressed this problem?
A sensor in a car seat that would recognize it was in use. - Car will not start until seat is manually activated. Ignition is opened, an alarm goes off if a car door is opened before the seat is deactivated.
The only way out of the car without setting off the alarm is to address the issue of the child in the car seat.


Weighted sensor after closing the trunk.
posted by Mblue at 2:45 PM on March 7, 2009


Without intent there is no crime. So, no.

Vehicular homicide
Manslaughter

Parents are responsible or the well-being of their children. Forgetting that you have one in your car constitutes gross negligence. (In my estimation-- IANAL, but I can read wikipedia like nobody's business)
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:48 PM on March 7, 2009 [7 favorites]


I find it hard to fathom, given that as a parent of a now 2.5 year old, my mind seems to be permanently tuned to the "where is he and what is he doing" station. However, once when he was about a year old, I was distracted for a second and forgot about child care on the way to work...for about 30 seconds, before I felt a weird sort of numb "OH SHIT" sensation, remembered what I was supposed to be doing, and turned the car back to where it was supposed to be going. I guess all it takes is the right sort of distractions on the right sort of day.
posted by Jimbob at 2:48 PM on March 7, 2009 [13 favorites]


*for* the well-being. Sticky keyboard.
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:49 PM on March 7, 2009


.

God this is sad. A prayer for all of these poor people and their families.

Hug 'em if you got 'em tonight.
posted by zerobyproxy at 2:52 PM on March 7, 2009


I'm deeply conflicted about all this. I don't like the idea of people who have suffered this much needing to defend themselves against criminal charges, and I'm tempted to say the government should stay out of it entirely. But then this paragraph gives a hint of why some sort of investigation might be necessary:

Not all cases of infant hyperthermia in cars are like the ones this article is about: simple if bewildering lapses of memory by an otherwise apparently good parent. In other types of cases, there is a history of prior neglect, or evidence of substance abuse. Sometimes, the parent knowingly left the child in the car, despite the obvious peril. In one particularly egregious instance, a mother used her locked car as an inexpensive substitute for day care. When hyperthermia deaths are treated as crimes, these are the ones that tend to result in prison sentences.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:54 PM on March 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


It's a truly terrible thing to happen, and as the kind of person who is constantly losing my sunglasses, losing a thing I was working on less than a minute ago that I put down to answer the phone, losing books, forgetting to do things, forgetting I've already done things ... I'm afraid it would happen to me, in the decreasingly likely event that I ever become a father. They say the chronically forgetful are no more likely to do it than the well-organized, but as a chronically forgetful person, I have serious doubts about that.

This happens to pets and their owners as well as to children and parents. Police dogs sometimes die in hot cars. I will admit to having thought badly of those who let their pets die in hot cars, but after reading this article, I've rethought that position somewhat ... although I remain sure that people are more inclined to be callous to an animal and careless rather than forgetful of its vulnerability to the heat, than to a child.

There's an interesting point made near the end of the article about the marketing of the alarm, in that people will never consider that they might do this unthinkable thing so will therefore never buy the alarm. That, to my mind, is a failure of marketing: people are perfectly willing to consider that others will do it, particularly those they have seen do stupid and forgetful things before. The target market for your device is anxious grandparents.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:55 PM on March 7, 2009 [7 favorites]


(And baby shower gifters.)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:57 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


This should be no more a crime than should letting a child play with a gun you're SURE you unloaded. Neither action involves any intent to commit a crime. And mostly, children don't die as a result. Until they do.
posted by jamstigator at 2:57 PM on March 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


How difficult/expensive would it be to build a system in cars that addressed this problem?

But that is a long, slippery, road. You can't make sensors to account for every single possible outcome that may, maybe, affect someone and cause injury or death. The idea of demanding that all motor manufacturers design and fit a system that will prevent a parent doing something stupid and harming their child and, more to the point, taking the liability for the safety of that child is unrealistic and wrong-headed.

I know saying that it's a stupid thing to do is harsh, but it's also true. Especially from the perspective of the manufacturer. Next thing will be safety devices that prevent people from leaving dogs in the car. Or domestic warnings that sound when a child is left unattended for longer than a set, legislated, period. Or to prevent children shutting their fingers in doors. Where do you stop? At some point, people need to take responsibility for their own actions, even if the result is as dreadful as this.

Also there is the argument for who pays for the sensor - parents won't because they think it won't happen to them. The manufacturer won't because it (frankly) isn't there problem to pay for the failings of someone's overly hectic and distracting life. For the same reason, getting people to buy it as an aftermarket element (as mentioned in the article) is unlikely.

The problem here isn't the car at all. It's the lifestyle of someone who has enough distractions and stress in their lives that forgetting something of this magnitude is possible, never mind common enough to be discussed like this. Fix the lifestyle, not the car. If you make too many sensors and warnings for every and all possibilities, people will lean on them, rely on them and then we'll see not thinking for themselves, and suing car manufacturers because 'it's their fault my baby died as they don't have a warning sensor like the other car manufacturer does'. This is not a new path, just a different end point.

Besides, a perfectly functional alarm may say "Check the back seat for children" every time the car is turned off. The amount of times that people will ignore this may well mean that this, automatic, reaction will mean that the time the do have a kid in the car, they'll STILL dismiss the alarm.

You cannot legislate or rely on technology for this kind of issue - it is merely distraction and forgetfulness, no matter how horrible the consequences. You cannot have sensors and detectors for every possible bad outcome in someone's (and, in fact, anyone's) lives. The issue is the lifestyle. It makes more sense to try and legislate against the distractions, rather than the end result. Hysteria and knee-jerk reactions for horrible incidents produce many such misguided cries for "Somebody must make sure that 'x' does not happen again".
posted by Brockles at 3:00 PM on March 7, 2009 [25 favorites]


Heh, guy on Metafilter who's about to post without reading the article.

I know who you are. I'm you a reasonable amount of times myself.

Stop. Go read the article. Or don't post.

I'm serious. STOP. GO. READ.
posted by effugas at 3:03 PM on March 7, 2009 [47 favorites]


killdevil, I'm no lawyer, but intent is only used to decide the severity of the crime as far as I know. If I shoot you in the head because I want you dead, that's murder. If I am firing off a gun to celebrate a wedding and the bullet hits you in the head we say, "No crime?" Or maybe I get discharging a weapon within city limits. There's still a crime here.

I agree with Devils Rancher on this one. It's a crime. Charge them and move on.

And yes I read it, and yes it's tragic, but that fits the bill on a lot of things. Let's start letting drunks that killed someone while driving go home too, since it's something they will have to live with for the rest of their lives.

And I also just don't buy the "forgot" thing. I do an OCD scan of various possessions all the time. "Phone, wallet, glasses, keys." Good to go. You can for sure know that if I had a kid he'd come before the phone on that list.

Maybe there will be a chorus of parents chiming in with, "I forget my kids all the time," and "They tell you kids will be the most important thing in your life, but it's not like you'd expect," but unless I hear parents saying this, I'm going to just go on with my life believing this isn't something you'd forget, it is a crime, and the fact that you loved your victim isn't enough punishment.

I have no idea if they are the truth, but my beliefs make it easier to sleep at night.
posted by cjorgensen at 3:04 PM on March 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is horrifying though by the very end, there's a wee bit of brightness.

As a parent, and a forgetful one at that, I count my blessings that I never did this. But I've had days where I could have done something like this. As economic times worsen and as people get more desperate and distracted, we may see more cases occur.

I once had a nightmare that I was so busy, so many demands being put on my time because of work and other things, that I had chosen to leave my then-8-year-old by herself for two days, rationalizing, in the dream, that the school bus would get her to and from school (it stopped right at our drive), she could use the microwave and the alarm would go off just fine. It's nuts, I know. But parenting, and lack of support for it, can drive you to do crazy things, and the crunch of time and family responsibilties certainly makes us all nuts. Please, before you respond, I did NOT say I would have done this but rather I'd had a nightmare that I had done it. It so scared me that I pulled back from some of my other responsibilities.

As far as the parents who leave their kids in the car as child care--I even have a tinge of sympathy in at least one of these cases. I remember reading about a single mother who left three of her kids in the car in the late evening because she had to go to work--if she didn't show up, she would be fired from a job she desperately needed. One of the kids was about 10, as I recall, and the mother, too, rationalized that she could at least run out to the car and check on them at her lunch break. I believe she got arrested and the kids were fine.

And I wonder, too, at the role of the cellphone. Some of the cases seem to involve calls while parents were driving. I firmly believe that cellphones are a horrible distraction for drivers, worse than even, say, putting on makeup or eating one's lunch at the wheel, as stupid as both of those activities are. I think there's a psychological factor that pulls the driver's attention to a different part of their lives and decreases their attention on their surroundings. I could be entirely wrong about this, it's just an observation.

I'm not defending any of these people's behavior. But desperate times makes for desperate measures and I, for one, find it impossible to condemn any of these parents.
posted by etaoin at 3:05 PM on March 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


But lets twist the knife of government just a little more and extract our personal pound of flesh for all the dead babies. Sounds like a plan, huh?

Golf clap for ideological consistency. I'm perfectly happy attaching as much social cost as we can to this practice, and find it rather odd you're willing to push aside child neglect concerns so readily.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 3:08 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]



Without intent there is no crime. So, no.


I believe there is a Tourette's-like form of intent at work in these cases, where people are compelled, when their control relaxes because of distraction or a press of obligations, to act out one of their worst nightmares, just as people with Tourette's will often blurt out the most embarrassing thing they could possibly have thought of.
posted by jamjam at 3:10 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.

There's your problem. The universe is implacable and heartless, and terrible things do happen at random. Mere vigilance cannot avert catastrophe. If you believe otherwise, you probably do not live anywhere near the Gulf Coast.
posted by localroger at 3:10 PM on March 7, 2009 [14 favorites]


letting a child play with a gun you're SURE you unloaded

"Letting" the child play with the gun implies a lot more awareness of the fact that the child is playing with the gun than is applicable here. Despite the fact that a car can do more harm than a gun, a gun is still deadlier than a car, because unlike a car, it's designed for deadly purpose. The better analogy in my opinion would be: for some reason, the owner of a gun has left it loaded and lying somewhere, having been momentarily distracted at the point of putting it away (perhaps by a phone call or something), and then the child independently discovers it and shoots themselves or someone else. We do hold people criminally responsible for that failure, because there is a higher expectation for control of a gun than for control of a car.

Similarly if a parent forgetfully left the keys in their car and the car in gear, and Child A climbed in and released the handbrake, causing it to roll over Child B, that's a failure to properly secure the car and supervise the children. In the hyperthermia cases, the death occurs precisely because people secure their cars (arguably due to an unwarranted level of fear and distrust of fellow human beings), and are completely unaware that they have not actually supervised the children.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:11 PM on March 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


The worst thing about this—if it's possible for there to be a worst thing—isn't the death itself, but that the manner of death is one of the most excruciatingly painful ways to die… no punishment could possibly match what these poor people must put themselves through every day.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:15 PM on March 7, 2009


cjorgensen I have no idea if they are the truth, but my beliefs make it easier to sleep at night.
Only so long as it doesn't happen to you, cjorgensen. Your beliefs are causing you to condemn others--which may well be find for you psychologically, and is irrelevant to those people who it has happened to, as long as you don't start writing nasty letters to the paper--but if it did happen to you, your beliefs there would mess you right up.

While we all hope that it won't happen to you, if you seriously think it can't happen to you, go back and read the article again.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:16 PM on March 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


That was an incredibly well written article.
Read it, if you haven't.
If you stopped reading, I insist you keep on going. I lost it a few times, but I'm glad I read it all the way through.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 3:18 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I see a lot of faith in memory in this thread. How could any responsible parent simply forget their child for hours on end? If you think that YOU -- a reasonably responsible person but not superhuman, maybe with a good memory, maybe a little forgetful -- couldn't do it, then the only reason anyone else could do this is because they're bad, or live the wrong kind of life, or some other fairy tale you're telling yourself.

Too bad that memory is a lot more complicated and a lot more flawed than most people think.
"Memory is a machine," he says, "and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you're capable of forgetting your cellphone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child." ...

What he's found is that under some circumstances, the most sophisticated part of our thought-processing center can be held hostage to a competing memory system, a primitive portion of the brain that is -- by a design as old as the dinosaur's -- inattentive, pigheaded, nonanalytical, stupid.

Diamond is the memory expert with a lousy memory, the one who recently realized, while driving to the mall, that his infant granddaughter was asleep in the back of the car. He remembered only because his wife, sitting beside him, mentioned the baby. He understands what could have happened had he been alone with the child. Almost worse, he understands exactly why.

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."

By experimentally exposing rats to the presence of cats, and then recording electrochemical changes in the rodents' brains, Diamond has found that stress -- either sudden or chronic -- can weaken the brain's higher-functioning centers, making them more susceptible to bullying from the basal ganglia. He's seen the same sort of thing play out in cases he's followed involving infant deaths in cars.

"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."
posted by maudlin at 3:19 PM on March 7, 2009 [15 favorites]


I've done this. I drove right past the daycare and to work, and when I parked and went to get my briefcase from the backseat I was surpised to find my toddler asleep in his carseat.

No big deal. But what if I didn't carry a briefcase?
posted by LarryC at 3:19 PM on March 7, 2009 [76 favorites]


Given that all of these children were on the way to outside caregivers, maybe caregivers should call parents if a child doesn't show up. Obviously, some technology in the car would be even better (looks like a caregiver tried to call Lynn Balfour but got voicemail), but in the meantime, if it could prevent just one, etc. etc.

It seems clear to me that there is something ... blip-like? ... about these lapses, rather than a more general lack of caring or attentiveness, given that there seem to be no examples of at-home parents making this mistake. It's a matter of following a habitual path, and then not expecting to see the child for several hours anyway.
posted by palliser at 3:27 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


This should be no more a crime than should letting a child play with a gun you're SURE you unloaded.

Oh, please. There's a perfectly good reason to have a child in the car. There's no reason to let a child play with a gun, loaded or unloaded. Terrible analogy.

I was forgotten in my car seat in the garage as a toddler. I don't remember it, obviously, but my parents are both intelligent, competent, contentious people. If it could happen to them, it could happen to anybody.
posted by EarBucket at 3:30 PM on March 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


On my first load of the page, an ad for life insurance featuring a kid crying in front of a grave came up. Not really the best thing to go with the article.

I clearly, clearly remember the time my mom forgot me in the car, when I was about five. A bunch of us went to a family gathering, and everyone got out, leaving me behind. I couldn't get the door open, thanks to the child lock.

I remember frantically pounding on the window, crying, thinking that nobody would ever come get me. Everyone was at a picnic table nearby, and I remember getting more and more upset as people walked by and didn't notice me. Someone finally clued in and my mom came rushing to get me. I was inconsolable for the rest of the day.

We did the same thing to my little cousin on his second birthday. The whole family was gathered at my grandma's house, with the cake, presents, party hats, everything. It wasn't until we were about to light the candles and someone went looking for the birthday boy that we realized nobody had grabbed him from his car seat.

It's so easy to forget. I'm not sure how I feel about this, yet.
posted by riane at 3:37 PM on March 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


Argh. My parents are conscientious, not contentious.

Well, that too, sometimes, but it's not what I meant.
posted by EarBucket at 3:37 PM on March 7, 2009


This was my number one fear upon becoming a parent. My brain is wired such that this *had* to be my number one fear, or else it would have happened.
posted by ewagoner at 3:42 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I couldn't read the entire article. I know a parent who has lost a child this way. That child would be the exact age as my youngest son-we were pregnant together. We went through an IVF cycle to conceive (it was my first, their 8th) together and that child was the focus of both his parents entire consciousness. I'm not exaggerating or being ironic-that baby was worked for, dreamed of, planned around and his parents could not have been more attentive. For anyone who doesn't understand how this can happen, here's how:

Exactly like LarryC described. Except dad didn't carry a briefcase.

The pain and self flagellation that father has been through is completely unimaginable to any of us who haven't experienced it. Losing a child is horrible, losing a child knowing it is YOUR fault would drive almost anyone insane. Is it a crime? I quite frankly can't say-I know my friend is not a criminal, there was no intent or motive or even negligence. It was the exact definition of an accident.
posted by hollygoheavy at 3:47 PM on March 7, 2009 [22 favorites]


Oh Jesus. Just when I almost made it through the whole article without losing it:

The tape is unendurable. Mostly, you hear a woman's voice, tense but precise, explaining to a police dispatcher what she is seeing. Initially, there's nothing in the background. Then Balfour howls at the top of her lungs, "OH, MY GOD, NOOOO!"

Then, for a few seconds, nothing.

Then a deafening shriek: "NO, NO, PLEASE, NO!!!"

Three more seconds, then:

"PLEASE, GOD, NO, PLEASE!!!"

What is happening is that Balfour is administering CPR. At that moment, she recalls, she felt like two people occupying one body: Lyn, the crisply efficient certified combat lifesaver, and Lyn, the incompetent mother who would never again know happiness. Breathe, compress, breathe, compress. Each time that she came up for air, she lost it. Then, back to the patient.


I couldn't live with myself if I caused a beloved, helpless pet to die in that kind of agony through my own neglect-- it's amazing to me these parents have survived.
posted by availablelight at 3:51 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure what societal purpose it serves to punish these people any more than they're already punishing themselves. It's not as if they're going to reoffend. I am sure they are 100x more vigilant now if they have other children. I think the resources that would be used to prosecute them would be better used in a public awareness campaign. It'd be trivial to print up hangtags - as are used for disabled parking - and distribute them at daycares, schools, malls, etc.
posted by desjardins at 3:53 PM on March 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


I see a lot of faith in memory in this thread. How could any responsible parent simply forget their child for hours on end?

Well, it's not as black and white as that. At least for me. Once the child has been forgotten, the 'hours and hours' on end are irrelevant, I think. Once you have filed away 'done everything this morning', there is no reason to revisit it, so the continued forgetting isn't a memory issue (in my odd way of looking at things) any more. You don't constantly question whether you put the parking brake on all day, do you? Once you've done it, or think you did, you don't revisit it so the extended period adds no import.

However, it's the combined aspects of 'I don't understand how someone can forget their child is in the car' or, from my perspective, 'I don't understand how someone doesn't give their car the once over before leaving it for hours'. Standing at the door to lock it, even assuming you don't get anything else out of it to take with you, makes the car extremely easy to see into. The idea of not even looking in as I walk away is alien to me. But it has often been observed that I am a little detail orientated and obsessive, I guess.

As such, I suspect the level of distraction required to do this (assuming no negligence) must be extreme enough that normal logical actions are beyond the person in question. The level of distraction must be at a kind of critical mass level where the brain is all kind of muddied up.
posted by Brockles at 3:53 PM on March 7, 2009


The article provokes many questions about negligence, culpability, and punishment.

Do we treat all of these people the same? Is their burden of responsibility similar?
a) A parent late for work forgets his child is in the back seat of his SUV. The child dies;
b) A nanny rushing to complete errands before her employer returns from work, forgets her ward is in the back seat of her car. The employer's child dies;
c) A school minibus driver forgets to count heads when she drops off her wards at school, locks the van, and leaves for six hours. Three children die.

In all three cases, well-intentioned individuals commit the same negligent act leading to children's deaths. Only their relation to the deceased differs.
posted by terranova at 3:53 PM on March 7, 2009 [7 favorites]


Heh, guy on Metafilter who's about to post without reading the article.

I know who you are. I'm you a reasonable amount of times myself.

Stop. Go read the article. Or don't post.

I'm serious. STOP. GO. READ.


I read the article between my first and second comments. I feel horrible for someone who is so distracted that they forget they have a child with them. It must be awful to realize you've killed you own child. I have three children, so I'm not just soap-boxing, here. It's still criminally negligent to forget your infant is in your presence, whether you leave the stroller at the deli counter for 5 hours, or lock the tyke in a car.

Also, the article is obviously slanted to evoke the emotional response here of "oh, those sad, sad people. They've been hurt enough by this." It doesn't take into account any of the known cases where a parent left a kid in a car to go drinking in a bar, or gambling at the slot machine -- cases with the same outcome that would have elicited much less sympathetic responses from the reader. I'm cogent enough of intent to see when my heartstrings are being pulled at, and while I'm sure what these parents have gone through emotionally is terrible, it does not absolve them of their responsibility under the law.

That said, I can also understand if a jury decides to acquit. That's the job of a jury.
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:03 PM on March 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


god almighty, this is the saddest thing I've read in some time.

I just don't understand what can be achieved by the prosecution of these parents. retributive justice / punishment? good god, like these people aren't already paying a horrible price. putting them in prison is going to be marginally more painful, and largely only in a corporeal sense.

deterrence? well, that's a major reason for things like manslaughter or vehicular homicide in general: make an example of somebody who drove too fast, too inattentively, too whatever, and we're safer, because it sends a message to society to slow down, eyes on the road. but what's to deter here? it's not like by making an example of somebody for this tells any cautionary tale, because everybody thinks "I could never be so callous." this is (as has been noted above) far removed from, say, letting a child play with an unloaded gun.

if you give credence (as I give some) to the scientific research suggesting that our brains are, in fact, imperfectly wired, it becomes hard to see how this IS deterrable. I realize not everyone sees merit in this form of exculpation, though.

now, as the article observes, there are cases of true negligence -- parents under the influence, parents who really do have bad motives -- but those are the minority, and those people are going to be prosecuted (and likely convicted.)

but just your average parent who made the horrific mistake? nothing to be gained. leave them to their pain.
posted by theoddball at 4:20 PM on March 7, 2009


A few additional thoughts:

1) Morrigan wrote: "With regard to the article itself, I will say that although I often now skip Gene Weingarten's humor column (for which he is perhaps best known), I appreciate that his serious pieces are consistently excellent."

I agree -- and would add that if Weingarten's piece on Joshua Bell performing to unknowing commuters in a Metro station won him a Pulitzer, then this story is a lock for a repeat.

2) The photos accompanying this story are also quite moving -- especially in the printed magazine (if you subscribe to the WaPo, you get the Magazine and other Sunday goodies delivered on Saturday, which is how I came across this article today). You can't really see it in the first shot of Miles Harrison that's on the web version of the article, but that photo is nearly full-page in the printed magazine and there is an obvious a tear on the end of his nose.

3) The stories of Miles Harrison and Lyn Balfour are compelling enough on their own to make a movie version of this story; if Balfour actually winds up having a child for the Harrison's, it'll be a sure Oscar-nominee.
posted by Ike_Arumba at 4:37 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Please, someone remind me to eventually find out if the Harrison's end up accepting Balfour's offer.
posted by Ugh at 4:37 PM on March 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


"But that is a long, slippery, road. You can't make sensors to account for every single possible outcome that may, maybe, affect someone and cause injury or death."

How about one that has, repeatedly, affected people and caused injury and death, again, and again, and again, and again?

Would that be a good candidate out of "every possible outcome"? Maybe?
posted by edheil at 4:43 PM on March 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Like ewagoner, this was my main fear when I became a parent. I deliberately put my purse in the back seat, even now, so that I have to check.

What stumps me, though, is why don't other people scan cars as they walk by? Seriously, is there some rule that says we shouldn't glance in as we move along? Pay attention, people! Stop staring at the asphalt and you might see something that saves a life.
posted by onhazier at 4:45 PM on March 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


As such, I suspect the level of distraction required to do this (assuming no negligence) must be extreme enough that normal logical actions are beyond the person in question. The level of distraction must be at a kind of critical mass level where the brain is all kind of muddied up.

Brockles, I take it from this statement that you do not have children. I don't but I know plenty of people who do. They are almost every one of them in a position "extreme enough that normal logical actions are beyond" them.

More to the point, are you saying you have never, ever forgotten something at the end of a day and gone, "Oh no!"? Ever leave your headlights on and need a jump start? Maybe you've gone back into the kitchen and saw you left the toaster oven on? Maybe you forgot to turn down/up the thermostat before leaving for the day?

None of these are as significant as forgetting a child in a car, but they are all exactly the same thought process. Some are potentially life-threatening.

Part of the following passage has been quoted upthread, but I really think you need to take a good long look because I'll be damned if it's not a photograph of you.
"We are vulnerable, but we don't want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we'll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don't want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters."
posted by mistersquid at 4:45 PM on March 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


"Also, the article is obviously slanted to evoke the emotional response here of "oh, those sad, sad people. They've been hurt enough by this." It doesn't take into account any of the known cases where a parent left a kid in a car to go drinking in a bar, or gambling at the slot machine -- cases with the same outcome that would have elicited much less sympathetic responses from the reader. I'm cogent enough of intent to see when my heartstrings are being pulled at, and while I'm sure what these parents have gone through emotionally is terrible, it does not absolve them of their responsibility under the law."

1. I'm not aware of any meaning of "cogent" which would make that sentence make sense. "Cognizant" maybe?

2. Sometimes the fact that you feel your heartstrings are being pulled doesn't indicate that you're being cynically manipulated, but that you *still have a heart*.
posted by edheil at 4:47 PM on March 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm just gonna repeat what mistersquid quoted cause it's the touchstone for any internet thread on this topic, and cannot be repeated enough:

"We are vulnerable, but we don't want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we'll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don't want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters."
posted by edheil at 4:48 PM on March 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


What is the worst case she knows of?
"I don't really like to . . ." she says.
She looks away. She won't hold eye contact for this.
"The child pulled all her hair out before she died."


This article was one of the most heartrending things I have read in a long time. But it is so true and touches on something so often glossed over. This is life. Life is not Disneyland or laughing models sipping vodka gimlets next to men with perfect shaves.

Life is heartless and swift. It turns on you in an instant. And when it is set on something, it is unforgiving. And when Yama finally comes, no one can delay him for even a second. Life has its pleasures, but in the same world where you just got this fabulous raise or a really great handjob, there was a baby who died from baking in a car and before she died she pulled out all of her hair in agony.

Frankly, I don't know how face it.
posted by milarepa at 4:50 PM on March 7, 2009 [23 favorites]


Before dismissing the gun analogy as less than ideal, consider: cars and guns are both modern mechanical inventions, both have been used to commit murders (and suicides), both require a license (depending on the type of gun/vehicle), both are highly capable of accidentally killing someone, and accidental deaths involving both are common. Forgetfulness with a gun can cause a child's death. And forgetfulness with a car can do the same. There are so many similarities that I'm surprised anyone thought the analogy wasn't fitting. A matter of opinion, I guess.
posted by jamstigator at 4:53 PM on March 7, 2009


Wow. That article was incredible.

Thanks, Ike_Arumba. You're right: that's one of the best pieces of journalism I've read, a story where the journalist asks the right questions (which sometimes make people nervous) and has the honesty and guts to report what happened clearly and immediately.

I've said here before that the purpose of punishment is to benefit the criminal, who carries the weight of his crime. I have to say that I went into this article feeling as though I'd think that this man deserved the same: the purgation and therapeutic effect that only punishment for having done something wrong can give. Maybe just a few years of community service helping youth, I told myself, but some punishment might help this man.

But I can't say that. I just can't. This is not a man that the rule of law can help; he's in a terrible place, and very few of us can even imagine what it's like to come back from that place. I can see why it's important that there are laws against this kind of thing - one can obviously imagine very different scenarios that probably need punishment - but this is one case where punishment will do no one any good.

Incidentally: isn't there some way that technology can help prevent this problem, if it's really increasing steadily by the year?
posted by koeselitz at 4:56 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


jamstigator, only one is INTENDED to kill people.
posted by desjardins at 4:57 PM on March 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


One point that no-one has mentioned: The article mentions that the number of incidents is increasing year by by year, and it happened three times in one day last year. And that it is occurring because more and more people are putting child seats in the back seat rather than the front seat, which used to be standard.

Why? Because care safety "experts" tell everyone it is safer because children can be injured by the air bags.

That's one horrible unintended consequence and a reminder that things are rarely as cut and dried as they seem to be.
posted by Justinian at 5:03 PM on March 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


I read a rather different article on this phenomenon once, about two fathers. Both loved their little children very much; both had one terrible, distracting workday; and both of their children died in hot cars. One man was a white college professor who had two other children with his equally educated wife. The other was a Hispanic day laborer who was no longer with his daughter's mother. One of them was exonerated by the justice system; the other went to prison. Which do you suppose was which?

I don't remember enough specific terms to Google the article, but no prizes for guessing. Still, I am afraid we may already have the least worst system in place regarding such deaths.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:09 PM on March 7, 2009


How about one that has, repeatedly, affected people and caused injury and death, again, and again, and again, and again?

Seriously? This is something that, in the article, is represented as having happened 15-25 times a year in a country with a population of 300 million people. That is a miniscule, almost inconsequential, proportion in context.

Would that be a good candidate out of "every possible outcome"? Maybe?

Not even close, no. Despite the severity of the result, the emotional reaction to the content doesn't justify the response suggested.

Brockles, I take it from this statement that you do not have children.

In all honesty, I'm not sure of the relevance of that assumption to either your point or mine.

More to the point, are you saying you have never, ever forgotten something at the end of a day and gone, "Oh no!"? Ever leave your headlights on and need a jump start? Maybe you've gone back into the kitchen and saw you left the toaster oven on? Maybe you forgot to turn down/up the thermostat before leaving for the day?

As you note, those examples are not at all of a comparable magnitude as being responsible for a child. However, I'll point out that I didn't at all suggest it was impossible to occur, just that I find it very hard to imagine someone doing this in anything approaching a normal state of mind - I was suggesting that these people were under more strain than that which they could be reasonably expected to function normally. Not through any fault of their own, perhaps, except not recognising that aspect.

I really think you need to take a good long look because I'll be damned if it's not a photograph of you.

Really? Just because I suggest that no person would forget their own child and cause their death would do so unless under extreme strain?
posted by Brockles at 5:11 PM on March 7, 2009


Justinian's comment x1000.


Put the kids in the passenger seat, and this never happens again.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:16 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I read a rather different article on this phenomenon once, about two fathers. Both loved their little children very much; both had one terrible, distracting workday; and both of their children died in hot cars. One man was a white college professor who had two other children with his equally educated wife. The other was a Hispanic day laborer who was no longer with his daughter's mother. One of them was exonerated by the justice system; the other went to prison. Which do you suppose was which?

You're referring to this article here.

The Hispanic horse groomer left the baby in the car intentionally, not guessing it would be a problem-- he is also borderline retarded.
posted by availablelight at 5:21 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's still criminally negligent to forget your infant is in your presence.

It's this kind of thinking that explains why the USA is such a litigious society. Americans just aren't prepared to accept the fact that sometimes, shit just happens. Nobody is to blame. And bad things happen to good people.

Nobody deliberately 'forgets' something that's as important to them as their child. Nobody is being careless, or applying a lower standard of care than they'd apply in any other circumstance at all. As the article says, anyone capable of forgetting a cellphone or a set of keys is also capable of forgetting a child if the circumstances are right.

You can be as responsible a parent as anybody, you can consciously take all the care in the world, 365 days a year. All it takes is a single slip of the mind, and for that slip to line up with other circumstances and before you know it, something like this has happened.

Whether you wish to acknowledge it or not, there but for the grace of God go all of us.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:29 PM on March 7, 2009 [27 favorites]


"Put the kids in the passenger seat, and this never happens again."

Right -- many more will die, but it'll be a quick, painless blow to the head!
posted by palliser at 5:32 PM on March 7, 2009 [6 favorites]


Justinian:Why? Because care safety "experts" tell everyone it is safer because children can be injured by the air bags.

When that hoopla went down, there was much talk about car manufacturers adding cutoff switches to deactivate the passenger side airbag. Did any of them do this or was it cheaper to put a sticker on the visor and call it a day?
posted by dr_dank at 5:34 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Maybe we need to quit putting our babies and toddlers in the back seat when we're otherwise alone. It's doubtful that I would have left my baby in the car because he always was where I could see him, in the front seat. This was 15 - 16 years ago, and our used cars didn't have passenger-side airbags, but how hard would it be to require that car owners be able to turn the passenger airbag off each trip? I remember the recommendation at the time was that you should always put your kids in the backseat, but I ignored it, as I wanted to talk to him while I was driving. I took a small risk for slightly selfish reasons, not having any idea that I might be preventing a tragedy in doing so.
posted by zinfandel at 5:39 PM on March 7, 2009


"Put the kids in the passenger seat, and this never happens again."

Right -- many more will die, but it'll be a quick, painless blow to the head!


You can turn off the passenger-side airbag in many cars.
posted by Ike_Arumba at 5:41 PM on March 7, 2009


The article lays out the system we currently use, and honestly, it seems to work fairly well. Perhaps it needs to be a bit more standardized, but honestly, the entire justice system needs to be standardized across race and class, this is no different.

As an aside, WaPo.com's pagination is awful. Four pages of 200 words, followed by 5000? Thanks!
posted by graventy at 5:42 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


availablelight, I appreciate that - you're right, they weren't exactly parallel stories after all.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:47 PM on March 7, 2009


Really? Just because I suggest that no person would forget their own child and cause their death would do so unless under extreme strain?

Yes, because one of the things the article makes plain is that in many cases things are actually quite normal if slightly altered. The couple from Medina, Ohio, is an example of this. He takes the infant and she takes the toddler. He plumb forgot his child was in the car. The audio interview of that couple does not suggest "extreme strain." Or consider riane's example of two family gatherings. These events probably were a little hectic but I'm guessing not unusually so.

For you, Brockles, the idea of leaving a child in a car is so unimaginable you surmise such a thing could happen only under extraordinary circumstances. As a result, you do "put them in a different category from us," rationalizing that the tragedy is a consequence of exceptional circumstances when the truth is that some people accidentally kill their children in the course of just another regular day.
posted by mistersquid at 5:49 PM on March 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Dr_Dank: see Ike_Arumba. You just disable the passenger air-bag.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:50 PM on March 7, 2009


I remember once when my sister was about three or four, me my family was at a school party type thing. We're about to leave and my mom asks suddenly worried "Where's Hope?" (That's my sister's name). My mom was literally carrying Hope in her arms.

As far as remembering things like that, it's good to have little rituals, for example whenever I get up to go somewhere else, I always check to make sure I have my keys, wallet, and cellphone. I've probably done it thousands of times but it has saved me from forgetting my cellphone once. It does happen pretty often that I don't have it for some specific reason, at which point I'll remember it. Putting the purse in the back seat of your car every time you have your kid in there is probably a good idea.

Coming up with some device to prevent this is pretty absurd though, it's just not a common enough threat.
"We are vulnerable, but we don't want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we'll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don't want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters."
Who the fuck is 'we' here? I don't think that way. In fact, I think people who think that way are assholes.
posted by delmoi at 5:51 PM on March 7, 2009 [6 favorites]


You can turn off the passenger-side airbag in many cars.

This has only marginal relevance to why the rear of the car is so much safer than the front seat for children. To suggest that putting your children into a more dangerous place in the car to mitigate your possible forgetfulness is extremely ignorant in terms of crash safety. Just because someone doesn't believe the 'experts' (really? Quotes, because you don't understand their point or enormous amount of statistics and research?) doesn't make their suggested alternative action at all sensible. The chances of being involved in an accident vastly, immeasurably, outweigh the possibility of your forgetting a child that is asleep in your car.

All kids should be in the back of your car. Properly installed in car seats, booster seats and appropriate seat belts. End of. Anyone that suggests otherwise is, frankly, an idiot. At the point where car accidents occur at less than 15-25 instances a year, we can revisit this point, but until then, don't be stupid.

Just don't forget they're there.
posted by Brockles at 5:54 PM on March 7, 2009 [17 favorites]


>>> Put the kids in the passenger seat, and this never happens again.

>> Right -- many more will die, but it'll be a quick, painless blow to the head!

> You can turn off the passenger-side airbag in many cars.


a) We expect people will be unfailing in this, when they forget important details such as taking the kid out of the car? They will forget; the airbags will deploy due to routine triggers, such as a sudden stop; many more will die.

b) There are a lot of reasons the backseat is safer, not just airbag-related.

How about we all take the sensible route suggested above, and drop our purses/wallets in the backseat when we deposit the child? That becomes a muscle-memory habit, which is harder to disrupt due to memory lapses.
posted by palliser at 5:59 PM on March 7, 2009 [6 favorites]


A couple more thoughts on the detector device front occurred to me - maybe someone here has the resources to put them into practice.

(1) Motion detector + thermometer = "Threat to life" detector. Nothing inside a locked car should be moving, ordinarily. It's safe to assume that motion on a seat or floor will be due to the presence of a child, dog, or other living thing moving around in the car. Better to have false positives triggered by a cell phone set to vibrate, or a toy robot, or something like that. The greater risk with false positives is something banging into the car, or the car being moved while not occupied (towed, travelling on a ferry, etc). Alternatively I'm sure people won't be too hard to sell on the idea of a "your car is being towed" or "your car has been roughly bumped" detector. Add that to a thermometer capable of detecting rises in temperature that, given another few minutes, will reach a point that will pose a risk to life, and we have a "threat to life" detector.

(2) Stirling engine + solar/heat generated power = cool car. Maybe; I'm not an engineer, I have no idea how the mechanics of this work out, but if solar/thermal panels on the roof of a hot car can generate enough heat to drive a Stirling engine fast enough that it cools the interior of the car, or even boost the battery power enough that the air conditioner can be run while the car is unattended without draining the battery, that would probably sell as a "save your dog/baby and come back to a cool car after a day in the sun" device.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:59 PM on March 7, 2009 [7 favorites]


For you, Brockles, the idea of leaving a child in a car is so unimaginable you surmise such a thing could happen only under extraordinary circumstances. As a result, you do "put them in a different category from us,"

Holy fuck, I'm not demonizing these people. I'm unable to comprehend a situation where that may happen - but as I mentioned, I am a person that is intensely aware of details and who has worked for 20 years in an industry where the slightest lapse of attention can cause serious injury or worse. Procedures and forced habits that produce 'idiot proof' outcomes are something I enforce and dictate every day during my job. I noted that I am not necessarily an average case; I'm putting me as 'different to them', if you read my initial post.

The fact that I find it hard to imagine doesn't produce the implication that you insist it does about these people and their lives. I was relating it to how I think.
posted by Brockles at 6:00 PM on March 7, 2009


Yikes -- I leave to cook dinner... and yeah, the article has had its intended effect, I guess.

1. I'm not aware of any meaning of "cogent" which would make that sentence make sense. "Cognizant" maybe?

Yeah, woops. Wrong word. That's what a C- high school education will get you, folks -- boundless opportunities to demonstrate your ignorance indelibly on the internet. (I'm so proud of me sometimes, and i get all in a hurry to use my big words)

I know I'm in the minority here, but like I say, I've managed to go three for three (well, one was five when I got her from her step-dad) without baking any of them to death -- because I followed the fucking prime directive: The Children Come First. Period. All other actions and desires are secondary and subsequent to actions taken in support of the Prime Directive.

I'll also attempt to say, again, maybe in less ambiguous terms, that I do feel terribly sorry for the people who have accidentally killed their own children. As a loving parent, I know this has to be hell. Full stop.

However, we as a society band together to do certain things, and one of those things we do is to try to protect children from lethal negligence. Getting off scott-free because it was your own kid you killed and not someone else's just seems -- I dunno. I can't find a way to word it that succinctly exresses my thoughts in a way that won't seem like an insult to those with whom I am disagreeing, so I think I'll go finish dinner and let you guys have at it.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:17 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Brockles says, as support for the proposition that this would never happen to him, "I am a person that is intensely aware of details...."

Dude, everyone this has happened to thinks they are "intensely aware of details." If you read the article, this is a phenomenon that happens to people who work in professional fields with the most educated, trained, talented, and effective people.

The point being made is that this isn't a tragedy that these people were sloppy and let happen because of their mediocrity and absent-mindedness. Your view seems to be, "This happens to sloppy people whose jobs don't require attention to detail; as for super-effective, super-attentive me, nah, it could never happen."

Your exceptionalism is quite silly.
posted by jayder at 6:31 PM on March 7, 2009 [8 favorites]


Oh, and I used to be in the camp that demonized these people, until I came face-to-face with someone it happened to, and I realized that I had been all wrong in demonizing these people.
posted by jayder at 6:32 PM on March 7, 2009


My dad is a county sheriff. One day, he was driving me and my brother home from a baseball game. On the way home, we passed a truck. This truck had a rope attached to the hitch and something big and black dragging along the back. The lady driving the truck had tied her dog to the hitch, for whatever reason I'll never know. But she somehow forgot and drove away.

She dragged that dog at sixty miles an hour for about eight miles. My dad hit sirens, pulled her over, and showed her what she'd done. He pulled out his pistol and shot the dog in the head to end it's misery. I remember seeing the other side of the dogs face, all the fur and skin were gone. I remember how the dogs body jumped when he shot it. He didn't know we could see. He parked the car behind some trees.

That lady cried and cried and cried. She talked to my dad for a moment and then he dragged the dog behind the passengers side of the truck, I guess because he thought we wouldn't see it when we drove past. We drove away and that lady was sitting at the wheel crying her eyes out.

She probably could have been charged with animal cruelty but my dad just let it go.
posted by tylerfulltilt at 6:35 PM on March 7, 2009 [19 favorites]


Any parent who has worth a damn has--by some brief carelessness, negligence, or plain accident--almost killed a kid. It comes with the territory, and luckily in most cases it ends in freaked-out parent muttering, "holy fuck, look what I almost did." The indignation of those who at the ready to define such an accident as a crime is to be expected in a society in which people are so disconnected from reality and each other that no measure of empathy or human experience can break through rigid judgments that pretty much always skew negative. Scratch the surface of one who harbors such prosecutorial fantasy and you'll as likely find someone who would propose duct-taping the mouth of same child having a public temper tantrum.

I am a person that is intensely aware of details and who has worked for 20 years in an industry where the slightest lapse of attention can cause serious injury or worse.

What gets me about this is that you fail to mention the innumerable times when lapses of attention have indeed occurred that could have potentially caused serious injury, yet did not. We all do potentially dangerous stupid shit all the time, intentional or not, and we almost always get by without tragedy. It seems logical, in an evolutionary sense, that human existence tolerates a certain degree of fucking up (and I think pretty well); when it turns out badly, it's kind of cruelly random. So, you know, be all self-congratulatory about it at your peril.
posted by troybob at 6:37 PM on March 7, 2009 [16 favorites]


Not to mention that anyone who gets behind the wheel of a car is just as susceptible to potentially dangerous lapses of attention as anyone on your la-dee-fuckin-da bomb squad.
posted by troybob at 6:50 PM on March 7, 2009


Your exceptionalism is quite silly.

Is nobody fucking reading anything? I'm saying I find it extremely hard to imagine being in that situation - I gave some context about my life to try and explain why I find this so hard to understand. Not that I am some paragon of precision that it could never possibly happen to me. No-one on this earth is perfect; anyone with a brain knows this, but that doesn't make it any easier for me to get my head around a scenario where this could happen.

It just means I don't fucking understand it, for gods sake. Nothing else. Holy fucking fuckballs.
posted by Brockles at 6:51 PM on March 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


Brockles is my new hero.

and...

aeschenkarnos, my point here is the story is framed in a "is it a crime?" manner. The answer here seems blindingly obvious to me. So much so it doesn't even even seem like a valid question.

And you're right, I'd be unable to reconcile this belief with the actuality of it happening to me, and probably like this guy, would be be in a world of hell. This doesn't change anything for me. I can feel bad for him, but it was still negligence on a level that is criminal.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:02 PM on March 7, 2009


However, we as a society band together to do certain things, and one of those things we do is to try to protect children from lethal negligence.

How will prosecuting these people do that?

No one who hasn't realized that they might kill their child via forgetfulness is going to be deterred by the thought that if they kill their child they will also go to jail. Either "I will kill my child" is enough of reality for them that it breaks through all of the memory issues outlined in the story or its not. "I will go to jail" doesn't even begin to rate on the same level of possible consequences.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:02 PM on March 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


Incidentally: isn't there some way that technology can help prevent this problem

The solution doesn't need to be so technological. Whenever you get in the car alone with your baby in the back seat, tie a string from the belt loop on your pants (or something else that's attached to you) to the car seat. You can't get out without being reminded that the baby is there.

Knowing my own forgetfulness, I think I'm going to start doing this with my son.
posted by Simon Barclay at 7:04 PM on March 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


Brockles: I get what you're saying. My response was indecorous. Put more reasonably, I would say that getting one's head around such a scenario would seem aided by the fact that it is something that does happen, time and again, to decent people.
posted by troybob at 7:07 PM on March 7, 2009


"The indignation of those who at the ready to define such an accident as a crime is to be expected in a society in which people are so disconnected from reality and each other that no measure of empathy or human experience can break through rigid judgments that pretty much always skew negative."

I guess I'm one of these guys.

But I also feel for people in this situation. Like koeselitz points out, there's a benefit to punishment. To society and hopefully to the punished. Denying people who what done this any punishment under the umbrella that they are suffering enough is silly. You're dumping them outside a system and denying them any form of penance (and I don't mean this in a religious way).

I don't see why you have to be unempathic, reality disconnected, and inhuman to have a rigid judgment. I'm not one of those people that think everything is black and white, but I'm also not one to just dismiss something because I can feel for the guy.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:13 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't have any children, but I've taken care of a few, and my number one top-banana priority was always those children, no matter what else I had on my mind (and I can be forgetful and easily distracted). Above all else, I would never ever EVER let those kids out of my sight unless they were with an adult that I knew and trusted.

Leaving a baby alone, anywhere, under any circumstance, is not cool. When I'm out in public, I don't even leave my bag on the chair if I'm going to the bathroom. I wouldn't ask a stranger in a coffee shop to watch my laptop while I go off to get my drink. I don't mean to seem self-righteous here, but these people aren't just leaving their cell phones in their car, they're leaving something alive and sentient and vulnerable, and probably quite valuable to them. It's kind of a big deal. I'm sure they grieve like hell and perhaps that's punishment enough, but by then it's too late.

Please, parents, don't get so stressed out with life that you have lapses like these -- get on some ADHD meds or something, get some acupuncture, just calm down and live more simply so you can take care of your babies. They NEED your attention; it's non-negotiable.
posted by mirepoix at 7:17 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh god. I've got to learn to stop reading posts like this.
posted by JHarris at 7:19 PM on March 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


Yes, there can be a benefit to punishment. In cases like this, of course, that benefit would not be deterrence, as the tragedy itself is so much more cruel than whatever legal punishment given. But I think the 'therapeutic effect' and 'penance' being proposed here is a bit too optimistic within the context of as crude a bludgeon as our justice system.
posted by troybob at 7:21 PM on March 7, 2009


Please, parents, don't get so stressed out with life that you have lapses like these...

Please come back and read this sentence after you have had kids.
posted by troybob at 7:23 PM on March 7, 2009 [16 favorites]


Nah, I'm not planning to have children. I don't have a car either. Problem solved preemptively!
posted by mirepoix at 7:26 PM on March 7, 2009


Okay, you parents just keep on making your excuses.
posted by mirepoix at 7:28 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


anyone capable of forgetting a cellphone or a set of keys is also capable of forgetting a child...

Peter, one of these things is not like the others.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:29 PM on March 7, 2009


Problem solved preemptively!

Well, except for that problem in how you're applying a standard to parents that is unrealistic and disconcertingly oversimplified. For starters, the issue here is not that parents are saying, "Oh, I'll leave little Tommy alone in this hot car for just a few minutes." I think the principle at work here is more akin to driving home from work and then not being able to recall the route you took or anything about the journey. A lot of people who have seriously looked at this issue acknowledge that this is something much more complex than casual and uncaring forgetfulness. It has happened, and will happen again, to parents sincerely and unquestioningly devoted to their child's well-being.
posted by troybob at 7:36 PM on March 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Given that all of these children were on the way to outside caregivers, maybe caregivers should call parents if a child doesn't show up. Obviously, some technology in the car would be even better (looks like a caregiver tried to call Lynn Balfour but got voicemail), but in the meantime, if it could prevent just one, etc. etc.

I think this is the one of the best and simplest ideas in the thread.
posted by ymgve at 7:41 PM on March 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


How will prosecuting these people do that?

I don't know. I'm not a punitive sort of person, despite how I may seem to be coming off in this thread. It's just-- jesus fuck, children dying in cars. Fuck! I don't know! Fine the shit out of them and use all the money for research, education & prevention? I wish I knew. I'd throw myself in front of a bus for just about any child. I just don't know.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:41 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is nobody fucking reading anything? I'm saying I find it extremely hard to imagine being in that situation - I gave some context about my life to try and explain why I find this so hard to understand. Not that I am some paragon of precision that it could never possibly happen to me. No-one on this earth is perfect; anyone with a brain knows this, but that doesn't make it any easier for me to get my head around a scenario where this could happen.

and

I know I'm in the minority here, but like I say, I've managed to go three for three (well, one was five when I got her from her step-dad) without baking any of them to death -- because I followed the fucking prime directive: The Children Come First. Period. All other actions and desires are secondary and subsequent to actions taken in support of the Prime Directive.

It happens 25 times a year in the entire country. I know you guys still don't get it, but you really are what the quote about this being something that happens to other people is talking about. Out of millions of parents, probably less than 1/100th of 1% kill their children this way. It's not odd that you can't imagine doing it - the chance of you or anyone doing it is beyond minuscule

But it really. can. happen. to. anyone
posted by crayz at 7:43 PM on March 7, 2009 [6 favorites]


I think my reaction is a lot like Brockles': I get what the researchers are saying in that I can comprehend the words, but it doesn't make sense to me on a deeper level. I've been to that extreme memory-lapse part of the brain before, but somehow this situation -- forgetting that you've left a baby in a car -- does not compute for me. I guess luckily my brain hasn't forced out anything really important to make room for something not-as-important.
posted by mirepoix at 7:47 PM on March 7, 2009


Okay, you parents just keep on making your excuses.
posted by mirepoix at 10:28 PM on March 7 [+] [!]


I seriously doubt parents are making excuses, just acknowledging that kids change everything, including your perceptions of yourself, and you realize how many, horrible mistakes you can make, sometimes with deadly consequences. Those who haven't harmed their children by accident know they simply dodged bullets, so to speak.

I like the idea of combined motion detector/thermosat. It would probably save some dogs, too.
posted by etaoin at 7:50 PM on March 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is so heartbreaking. I can't imaging what possible *good* comes out of prosecuting the parents where it was obviously not intentional. What does it serve society? What benefit is there to us as a culture, as a society, as a people, to prosecute these parents?

This wasn't intentional. It was an accident, a slip of the mind, a mistake. It's horrible, and nothing will ever erase that from their minds.

But what does imprisoning them serve? How is rehabilitation supposed to be served up? What benefit does society gain by locking these people away?

I put it to you that prosecuting these parents is nothing short of using the justice system for vigilante vindictive punishment. And it proves that our justice system is beyond broken.

Dear god, what the hell, country? Have we no mercy in our souls at all?
posted by dejah420 at 7:52 PM on March 7, 2009


It's very clear you didn't read the article.
Wrong.

This is about kind and loving parents who made a simple mistake. There is no crime.
If you understood my comment, you'd realize I agreed in this case. My point was, the law can not make the assumption that every parent has good intentions. As the article pointed out, and as nebulawindphone quoted, there have been numerous cases of actual negligence.

That's why the parents are charged and it goes to trial. To determine the facts about this individual case. I wasn't arguing that they should have been found guilty, I was reacting to the implication that the judicial system was flawed by the mere fact that the parents were charged.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:53 PM on March 7, 2009 [6 favorites]


I think it is attitudes like "I can't get my head around it" or "just calm down and live more simply so you can take care of your babies" that make this situation all the more dangerous, and it is why those positions need to be challenged. Reducing this problem to negligence or carelessness, or saying that it is literally unbelievable, is exactly what keeps parents from taking necessary steps--even if a good prevention system were put into place--to keep it from happening to them. When you say that parents who do this are criminally negligent, that they don't consider their children the most important thing in the world, you're feeding other parents' assumptions that I'm a good parent, so this is something that can't happen to me.
posted by troybob at 7:54 PM on March 7, 2009 [15 favorites]


Oh, no. Spring is upon us and that means kids-dying-in-locked-cars season here in Houston. Last summer it seriously felt like there was another story about this in the Chron every week. Often it was a change in routine--Mom usually takes the kid to daycare but today Dad has to...and he forgets and drives straight to work, leaving a toddler strapped in the back. It's unbearable to read about it week in and week out. Ugh, if you want some crazy-pants vitriol on the subject read any random selection of Chron.com comments to an article like this.

Sad, sad.

/goes off to read the Weingarten article now
posted by Neofelis at 7:55 PM on March 7, 2009


mirepoix: Okay, you parents just keep on making your excuses.

do you understand that in all likelihood, 100% of the posters here have NOT been in this horrible situation? so we aren't "making excuses."

we are simply aware that as humans, we are fallible. we, unlike you apparently, acknowledge that we are not perfect and are capable of making mistakes.
posted by peep at 7:56 PM on March 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Brockles, I don't think you're demonizing anyone. I only think you're identifying one group of people as different from yourself, which may in fact be the case. They certainly are different in the consequences of their inaction.

I don't think differentiating yourself from them is wrong, but I do think it might be a way of protecting yourself. But maybe not.

In any case, I apologize for being such a psychoanalyzing busybody.

And regarding people who do psychologically separate themselves from others, I don't think they're necessarily assholes, as our inestimable and esteemed (no irony) delmoi points out. (Though sometimes they are.) In fact, I think they sometimes can be caring, loving people who are shocked by horrors of everyday life.
posted by mistersquid at 7:57 PM on March 7, 2009


I think that "living more simply" absolutely has to be part of it. These stories had a hecticness about them, adding to the distraction factor that allowed the incident to occur. In one of the stories, several cell phone conversations were happening during the drive, something that adds to driver distraction as well as overall distraction.
posted by agregoli at 7:58 PM on March 7, 2009


I've been to that extreme memory-lapse part of the brain before, but somehow this situation -- forgetting that you've left a baby in a car -- does not compute for me. I guess luckily my brain hasn't forced out anything really important to make room for something not-as-important.

I get this; but I think falling into the trap of overconfidence is the real danger here. This kind of situation probably did not 'compute' for a majority of the parents it has happened to. I imagine that none of them thought it was within the realm of possibility; unfortunately, that as much as anything probably increased its probability.
posted by troybob at 8:03 PM on March 7, 2009


Please, parents, don't get so stressed out with life that you have lapses like these...

Please come back and read this sentence after you have had kids.


I already know parents' lives are stressful; that's my POINT. My advice* is to do something about that level of stress so it doesn't affect your kids. There are so many avenues out there; not all of them cost a ton of money. Just saying "life is stressful" doesn't absolve anything.

*Yeah I know I'm a smuggo childless heathen and you'll distrust anything I say from the get-go because I'm not in the inner circle of sippy cups and playdates, but I do really love children, animals, plants, humans in general up to a certain point, and am not the world's biggest fan of a mile-a-minute post-industrialized society that has driven people to the brink, so take that for what it's worth.
posted by mirepoix at 8:07 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


god, my mom called my brother and I by our wrong names so often it's a miracle we weren't accidentally left in the car at some point (maybe we were and she never 'fessed up).

I don't have kids, but for all of you drawing cellphone/wallet=baby analogies, think of this- imagine if you were diligent and always carried your cellphone on you, except on Tuesdays and Thursdays when your spouse has it. and you drop it off every weekday for a few hours for daycare, but this all goes out this window on days when it has to be taken to doctors appointments. Oh, your grandparents are in town next week and will be taking care of the cellphone. and the cellphone was ringing all night because it was cranky.
posted by Challahtronix at 8:07 PM on March 7, 2009 [16 favorites]


This breaks my heart and scares the very soul out of my body that it could happen to me. My children are 8 years apart and I have had one incident where I 'forgot' that I had a new baby. We were in a mall and he was parked safely in his stroller beside me. I had 6 family members with me and he was in full view of everyone, perfectly safe, but I had been concentrating on my older daughter and forgot about him for about 10 seconds. When I looked to my left and saw him in the stroller, the feeling of surprise and then OVERWHELMING guilt that I experienced changed my life forever. Such a simple thing that deeply altered me. I'm a stay at home Mom, I'm busy but I don't have the crazy morning routines that seem to come along with these tragedies but I know that it could happen to me.

My answer is to be nosy. Look in cars and see what people are doing. In my daily errands and routines, I probably pass between 100-200 cars in parking lots and streets. I glance in every one and have made a habit to really look at the ones that have car seats. If you see a child, break a window away from the child IMMEDIATELY, forget about finding the owner, find a way to get into that car. I pray that I will never have to do it but I am mentally prepared to take action if I need to.
posted by pearlybob at 8:09 PM on March 7, 2009 [17 favorites]


[A few comments removed. I know it's a heavy topic, but please let's keep it civil.]
posted by cortex at 8:09 PM on March 7, 2009


I don't have kids, and up 'til now I was pretty much in the camp who thought all such parents were like Tarajee Maynor and deserved to be locked up. But the only stories that ever got printed in the news seemed to be the ones of deliberately neglectful parents. It never occurred to me that anyone could have one absent-minded minute that would lead to this type of tragedy. But parents are human, they get busy, they have momentary lapses of memory. My own Mom temporarily lost my youngest brother once.Wed been shopping in Sears around Christmas time and store was crowded, she was tired, the rest of us kids were getting on her nerves...it wasn't until she was loading us back into the car that she asked, "Where's Kurt?" (Apparently we other kids were too busy goofing around and arguing and whatever that we didn't notice he was missing, either.) She ran back in and found him happily playing in the toy department.
posted by Oriole Adams at 8:32 PM on March 7, 2009


I think that "living more simply" absolutely has to be part of it. These stories had a hecticness about them, adding to the distraction factor that allowed the incident to occur. In one of the stories, several cell phone conversations were happening during the drive, something that adds to driver distraction as well as overall distraction.

Hello.
I know it's not like one climbs on a rooftop and shouts "SIMPLIFY!" three times and suddenly, it gets simple, but there's something to that. Anything I say will come off as judgmental to someone here, but them's the odds I guess. I really think if you're living a life where forgetting you have a child in your care is a real possibility, perhaps you might re-examine the way you're living your life, and re-arrange it to better suit he children who depend upon you absolutely. It's not a light burden.

Even when my first daughter was strapped in the back seat of the car as an infant, I tended to talk to her as we drove. Not that she could respond much, but I wanted her to know I was right there the whole time. My Order of thinking was always 1: Drive safely -- you have an infant in the car, and 2: Hey, kid, how's it going back there? There wasn't a third thing.

Put the fucking phone down. Sorry if that seems smug and superior.

Actually, the fact that this does only happen maybe a couple dozen times a year speaks well of us as parents in general. 100 million of us aren't forgetting about the kids at all. Maybe that's good news, and proof that this sort of thing is really anomalous and rare. I hope.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:33 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have had one incident where I 'forgot' that I had a new baby. We were in a mall and he was parked safely in his stroller beside me. I had 6 family members with me and he was in full view of everyone, perfectly safe, but I had been concentrating on my older daughter and forgot about him for about 10 seconds. When I looked to my left and saw him in the stroller, the feeling of surprise and then OVERWHELMING guilt that I experienced changed my life forever.

Isn't this different, though? I think there is an essential ingredient to these tragedies that was missing in your case: the sense on the parent's part that a box has been checked, and now the child is being cared for at the usual place, and the parent is free to go about her day.

Not to stomp on your generous impulse to sympathize, but I do think it's important to identify the circumstances that facilitate these deaths in order to come up with a suitable preventive -- the daycare calling the parent when a child doesn't show up, or dropping the purse in the backseat when you strap the child in. If we're just trying to prevent ever forgetting about a child, even for 10 seconds, ever, we're not going to get very far.
posted by palliser at 8:37 PM on March 7, 2009


I wouldn't mind having someone who believes in a benevolent deity explain how this fits in. For that matter, I wouldn't mind having someone who believes in the Buddhist notion of perfection in the present moment and total acceptance of "what is" explain how this fits in. Should these parents be embracing the perfect reality of their totally unmerited agony? But I'd especially like to hear from western-style Deity believers, and please no "God's ways are inscrutable to man" answers.
posted by haricotvert at 8:51 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]



On "don't get so stressed out, simplify."

If you re-read you'll see that many of these parents, not being "middle class,"* needed to run as fast as they could just to stay in the same place, like Lewis Carroll's Red Queen. Especially because they had kids.

* euphemism today for privileged class
posted by bad grammar at 9:02 PM on March 7, 2009 [8 favorites]


Easy! Lyn Balfour admitted she'd had an abortion once, and was afraid God had punished her for killing one baby by killing her next baby and thereby showing her what a horrible, horrible thing she'd done.

Next!
posted by palliser at 9:03 PM on March 7, 2009


Harrison says he knows it is unlikely he and Carol will be allowed to adopt again.

He leans forward, his voice breaking into a sobbing falsetto, as it did in the courtroom at his worse moment of shame.

"I have cheated her out of being a mother."
This man is in prison for the rest of his life, though he has committed no crime.

I know I'm in the minority here, but like I say, I've managed to go three for three (well, one was five when I got her from her step-dad) without baking any of them to death -- because I followed the fucking prime directive: The Children Come First. Period. All other actions and desires are secondary and subsequent to actions taken in support of the Prime Directive.

Hmm, you don't say?
Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.

In hyperthermia cases, he believes, the parents are demonized for much the same reasons. "We are vulnerable, but we don't want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we'll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don't want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters."
posted by Mikey-San at 9:03 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


(Sorry, that was for haricotvert. Always preview.)
posted by palliser at 9:04 PM on March 7, 2009


Sad. Not a crime, in my opinion. Which reminds me, I have always wondered how accidents can be crimes.

Well, actually, I know. People have a desperate need to know that something has "been done" about an issue that upsets them. Makes no difference whether it makes any sense or not, it's a powerful instinct, and it's completely irrational. That's why we have a "justice system". And that's why it doesn't deter crime - because that is not what it is intended to do. It's certainly not intended to rehabilitate, and it's not really even intended to punish. It exists only to make the people on the outside of it feel better.

I have three children. It's ordinary mundane luck to be able to say this hasn't happened to me, but it really just comes down to luck. That's all. You can have all sorts of schemes in place, you can have excellent habits and a really sharp memory and mind, but it can still happen. Tie a string to the car seat? What happens when you forget the string? One of the other kids took the string, so now you don't have the string. When you get to work, you don't have a string tied to you, so now you are simply more certain that nothing is wrong when you get out of the car. Security isn't about absolute prevention anyway - it's only and always about threat reduction. But there will always be a way for a security system to fail. Always.

All we can do is to do our best, using whatever scheme we find practical. Sometimes, some of us will fail.
posted by Xoebe at 9:06 PM on March 7, 2009 [8 favorites]


People who've never experienced sleep deprivation on the scale that parents of small children do-- particularly parents who have jobs to go to during the day-- can't say that this might not happen to them. That's all.

My heart goes out to the parents in the article; their lives are forever broken.
posted by jokeefe at 9:07 PM on March 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


My advice is to do something about that level of stress so it doesn't affect your kids.

But I think the issue here is not stress. It's complexity, and how the brain's limited bandwidth manages to navigate it. To function in the world you have to filter stuff out, or else you would spend all day in bed trying to figure out what those little paramecium-looking things are passing over the surface of your eyeball. If you did not put some aspects of yourself on autopilot over the course of the day, you would literally go insane. Habit and routine are a big part of this.

I don't know the statistics, but something that stands out to me in reading stories like this over the years is not that the parent was doing something particularly distracting like talking on a phone or being otherwise self-involved, but it seems more often to have to do with a change in routine. If you drive the same way to work every morning for years, and then one day you have to make a detour to pick a friend up, it's not that unusual that you would automatically take your old route and then have to circle back to get your friend. Of course, we understand logically that a baby in the back seat is more important than a friend waiting for you; but it's possibld that our brains function in a certain way, by necessity, that might allow such distinctions to fade. We have all forgotten things that are important; it doesn't always mean that we don't care about them. We can be thankful that the consequences are rarely life-and-death.
posted by troybob at 9:08 PM on March 7, 2009 [10 favorites]


I wouldn't mind having someone who believes in a benevolent deity explain how this fits in. For that matter, I wouldn't mind having someone who believes in the Buddhist notion of perfection in the present moment and total acceptance of "what is" explain how this fits in. Should these parents be embracing the perfect reality of their totally unmerited agony? But I'd especially like to hear from western-style Deity believers, and please no "God's ways are inscrutable to man" answers.

I'm not sure if this qualifies as "god's ways are inscrutable", but one way of looking at this is that human suffering doesn't mean the same thing to God as it does to us. And that suffering is ended by death. And that if there's an afterlife I expect to hear a damn good explanation for all the degrees of human suffering.

That's all I've got; it's the product of 40 years of pondering the question. You're welcome.
posted by jokeefe at 9:12 PM on March 7, 2009


...that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.

I'm digging a hole here, I guess. But before I go, can you explain to me what's random & unavoidable about leaving your baby in a car all day? Being vigilant and responsible won't stop a tornado or a flood, or a comet, but vigilance and responsibility are precisely the qualities that will stop a parent from forgetting where their child is.

Using that quote to create a specious argument that life is capricious an we can't ever hope to avoid its vagaries is beginning to get under my skin more than a little bit right now.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:16 PM on March 7, 2009


Exactly, change in routine. While I do think cellphones are an issue in genearl, and their appearance in this story was interesting, I particularly was struck by Balfour saying that she'd dropped her husband off, and that apparently accounted for the "package delivered" thought process. I have been there, too, having a routine that requires me to make the stop to pick the kid up from sports practice, driving a specific route from job to home. I have taken that route a few times even when there's no practice and the kid is already in the car!

Those who think people can simply de-stress their lives need to read what the memory expert said.

And, too, as a freelancer, I work with employees of a company who are REQUIRED to have their Blackberrys on and to respond to any and all appropriate messages seven days a week, all hours of the day and night. This is in a company where people get 200 or more emails a day, some of which are relevant to them, many of which are not but still have to be read. So people don't always have the option of shutting down, even when they're ostensibly off duty. People will destress when their employers start treating them this way.
posted by etaoin at 9:22 PM on March 7, 2009


I mean, when employers stop putting this stress on them. God, still can't think straight today.
posted by etaoin at 9:23 PM on March 7, 2009


...but vigilance and responsibility are precisely the qualities that will stop a parent from forgetting where their child is.

But vigilance and responsibility do not exist as binary on/off qualities. We can be vigilant and responsible and have a momentary lapse; we can be vigilant and responsible and be overburdened (as parents often are); we can be vigilant and responsible about the wrong things. Often in these situations you are dealing with people who are still trying to learn how to be parents and how to prioritize the various responsibilities. The father who leaves his child in the back seat might have shifted some focus to the priority of getting to work on time--a priority that exists within a larger context of remaining employed and thus being able to feed his child.

Being vigilant and responsible can make something like this less likely, but it doesn't make it impossible.
posted by troybob at 9:26 PM on March 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


Being vigilant and responsible can make something like this less likely, but it doesn't make it impossible.

I essentially agree that. It's the notion that we are hapless victims of a capricious universe when we lapse that I find galling.

And this -- All these people who let their kids die by mistake were just perfectly normal folks until their kids died, and now they're special flowers that deserve extra kindness from this cruel world because it's been so cruel to them. WTF.

Sorry -- I'm beginning to troll. Beginning you say? So I'll quit. Nighty-night -- the anti-anxiety meds are kicking in, anyway. I think I'll go look at my sleeping son on the way to bed, though. Just because all this reminds me of how beautiful he is.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:42 PM on March 7, 2009


agree *with* that. See? I'm getting drowsy.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:43 PM on March 7, 2009


I essentially agree that. It's the notion that we are hapless victims of a capricious universe when we lapse that I find galling.

We are hapless victims of a capricious universe at all times, is the reasoning. It's just most of the time what that means is that we stub our toe or find five dollars on the sidewalk. When we accidentally let our children bake to death because of one freak lapse in memory, that's a pretty awful standout moment, is all.

And this -- All these people who let their kids die by mistake were just perfectly normal folks until their kids died, and now they're special flowers that deserve extra kindness from this cruel world because it's been so cruel to them. WTF.

They deserve some empathy—sufficient, at least, that they not be treated like murderers, be made example of, and have the unutterable and disproportionate grief and guilt over what their stupid, simple error cost them compounded just because otherwise a bunch of strangers wouldn't be able to, god forbid, make hay over being hypothetically less imperfect beings.

It cuts both ways, essentially. In an ideal world, no one would ever forget their kid in the car and no kids would ever die as a result. In a slightly less ideal world but one still better than this one, one that awful fucking happened there would be no ugly, accusatory backlash against the parents and hence no prompting of a defensive counter-backlash against the accusatory motherfuckers, hence and onward in a frustrating cycle.

We're in a world that is less ideal yet.
posted by cortex at 9:59 PM on March 7, 2009 [11 favorites]


All these people who let their kids die by mistake were just perfectly normal folks until their kids died, and now they're special flowers that deserve extra kindness from this cruel world because it's been so cruel to them.

I don't know that I've seen a call for 'extra kindness' here as much as some recognition that 'accident' does not imply 'criminal liability' and that parents who face this kind of tragedy (appropriately investigated, of course) do not deserve prosecution and persecution. In a compassionate sense we can take the position that they are already punished enough, but I don't think the law even needs to meet this standard--just the distinction between accident and crime.

Beyond the heartfelt empathetic response, I'm particularly interested in the delicate-thread-of-human-existence angle. I don't think the people here are 'hapless victims of a capricious universe'; I think there are mental processes at play that warrant investigation, considering that this is a repeating phenomenon that cannot be simply dismissed as independent, discrete acts of negligence. At the same time, I'm generally fascinated with how human-error tragedy does not happen more often; it seems like it should. We get onto highways at high speeds with massive vehicles, manned by drivers any one of whom at any minute could lose focus just long enough to swerve into another lane and set off a 50-car pileup. Busy interstates should be a daily bloodbath! But they aren't. Not that I don't get that the systems we design are set up with a certain degree of fault tolerance, and that such is part of the fabric of our evolution. But it still kinda blows me away.
posted by troybob at 10:02 PM on March 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Any parent who has worth a damn has--by some brief carelessness, negligence, or plain accident--almost killed a kid. It comes with the territory, and luckily in most cases it ends in freaked-out parent muttering, "holy fuck, look what I almost did."

What troybob said--here and throughout the thread. mirepoix, your babysitting experience is basically irrelevant to this issue, not because you're a childless heathen or whatever you said, but because having responsibility for kids 100% of your time is different from caring for them part-time. Just as there are lapses that you would never, ever allow yourself in the office--because you're in "office mode"--there are lapses a part-time caregiver may avoid more easily than a parent can. There is no down time for a parent, no on/off switch to help your brain figure out when it's supposed to be hyper-alert. You're always supposed to be hyper-alert, and it's just not realistic to assume that will be the case for all parents all the time.

The "holy fuck, look what I almost did" thought HAS to be familiar to any parent. I have four kids and can't name the number of times my vigilance has failed. The baby army-crawling (for the first time) off the bed and falling on his head. Or the toddler displaying new ability by climbing into the tub on her own--with the water running. Or scaling the dresser to get your iron supplements, which should have been out of reach... or heading for an outlet with a screwdriver, after watching you install electrical plates. Or running into the road, while you're right there, oncoming traffic screeching to a halt. I've seen all of these, and I can totally imagine forgetting a child in a car. Not because my children aren't my top priority--I would give my life for any of them in a second--but because perfect parenting as a 24/7 job is near impossible. So yes, "there but for the grace of god" is the only way to see the types of lapses that lead to these unthinkable tragedies, for the children and for their poor parents.
posted by torticat at 10:45 PM on March 7, 2009 [39 favorites]


I've still not seen this issue addressed: what if a person, through neglect, accidentally causes the death of someone else's child? We feel great compassion for a parent whose negligence results in the death of their son or daughter; many agree, they should not suffer further by being prosecuted.

But do we feel the same sympathy for a housekeeper, neighbor, friend, or van driver who, equally neglectfully, causes a child to die? If we answer "no," and demand they be prosecuted, we're holding children's caregivers to a higher standard of care than parents.
posted by terranova at 10:50 PM on March 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


But do we feel the same sympathy for a housekeeper, neighbor, friend, or van driver who, equally neglectfully, causes a child to die? If we answer "no," and demand they be prosecuted, we're holding children's caregivers to a higher standard of care than parents.

Yes, I think it is a higher standard. And I don't mean to minimize the pain of workers who inadvertently cause the death of a child they are supposed to be watching. But the thing is, caregivers are paid to do nothing else but to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the children in their care. They are not supposed to be doing, at the same time, all the other normal-life stuff that might distract them from that job. Whereas parents, unless one has the luxury of devoting fulltime care to children, have to deal with normal life stuff at the same time. Actually--even those who are fulltime fathers or mothers still have other responsibilities that have to be worked into their schedule. Think about it like someone who has to guard a nuclear power plant--but never has a week or a day or even an hour off. The power plant is of utmost importance--but do you think it can be expected that this person (and all persons in the same job) should be able operate at 100% all the time without fail? In the same way that a person might be expected to carry out the same duty, in a four-hour shift?
posted by torticat at 11:16 PM on March 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


There's a simple solution to this thing. It doesn't require electronics, it doesn't require putting responsibility on car manufacturers or caregivers who haven't received the child or random people walking past who didn't check to see if there was a kid in someone else's car in the parking lot.

CHECK YOUR CAR WHENEVER YOU LEAVE IT.

There was a huge argument made in this article about how the reptilian brain takes over and once a task seems completed it's forgotten about, and how lower brain functions handle regular activities so efficiently we forget we're doing them. It's equally easy to say that one can program oneself to always give the car a once-over before leaving to see if anything's forgotten.

I used to lock my keys in my car with some regularity, to the point where I had people suggest that I wear a spare around my neck. So I got into the habit of taking a good look at the car's interior before I shut the door, to make sure they weren't on the seat or in the ignition or whatever. Now it's been years since I locked the keys inside, but I still check every time. It's kept me from leaving my wallet, my bag, something valuable, etc., etc.

So just get used to looking in the damn car before you walk away. It's free, it takes two seconds, and it puts the responsibility where it belongs--on the parent.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 12:08 AM on March 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


You leave your kids to cook to death because you were distracted by your job or the errands you had to run or an important cell phone call well you my friend are a fuck up 100%. If these tasks can distract you from a living being how will one more beeping whistling gadget help you?

The death of the child is your fault, not the Swiss cheese part of your brain or any other convoluted explanation. Leaving an infant alone in a car for hours unattended whether it leads to its death or otherwise is inexcusable.

Sorry this is not your keys or your wallet they are not the same.

Accidents happen, this is negligence and it's criminal.
posted by pianomover at 12:38 AM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Getting off scott-free because it was your own kid you killed and not someone else's just seems -- I dunno.

The point is that they're not getting off scott-free. Every single moment for the rest of their lives they're going to pay for it. Can you imagine that torment? They (or at least I) would never be able to stop thinking about exactly how much the child would have suffered. That's hell, right there. Of course these people would think they're fuckups! They fucked up in the most incredibly awful way possible. The comments above which state 'there by the grace of *deity* go I' are the truest of all. Maybe the majority of us would never forget their baby in the car, but holy shit, anyone with an ounce of truth in them would have to admit to having at some time in their life done something that could have resulted in catastrophe.

I don't think these people whose fuckup has resulted in almost unimaginable agony for both their child and themselves really need a peanut gallery to tell them that they're fuckups. They know, and they'll never forget, and they'll never forgive themselves. How could a jail sentence go any way towards altering/changing/adding to that?
posted by h00py at 1:41 AM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Peter, one of these things is not like the others.

I'm not equating the subjects, I'm equating the act of forgetting. Forgetting is forgetting. Nobody wants to forget their keys, resulting in being locked out for hours, having to call a locksmith, etc. Similarly, nobody wants to forget their child. These things are genuinely important to people. It might involve negligence, but it the simple act of forgetting isn't in and of itself negligent. It's not like talking on a cell-phone while you're driving, or being rat arsed drunk. It's something that potentially can happen to all of us, over any aspect of our routine lives.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:44 AM on March 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


They are not supposed to be doing, at the same time, all the other normal-life stuff that might distract them from that job.

I disagree again.

When my son was an infant, he attended a creche. One day they called me. He'd had to be taken to the hospital. He'd been playing in the playground with the other children, and had been standing up in a pram, while another child had pushed him along.

Of course, he'd fallen out of the pram and knocked out his two front teeth.

There had been two members of staff in the playground watching the children at the time, but you can't keep your eyes on everyone, all of the time. You'd need eyes in the back of your head. Fortunately, this time, the consequences weren't serious.

I also have a friend, whose infant was having a play date at the home of a friend. Mum was preparing lunch when the children somehow wandered into a room where some building work was being done. Some masonry collapsed, killing the friend's child.

Now I'm pretty sure that, initially, the impulse would be to blame the friend hosting the playdate. But my friend is a doctor, and he knows full well that sometimes, despite his very best efforts, the patient dies. It doesn't require negligence as we define it legally -- often, all it requires is that he not be absolutely perfect, 24/7 -- a standard that it's impossible to hold anybody to.

So if those parents don't hold that neighbour responsible for the death of their child, I'm damned if I can.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:59 AM on March 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


Good article, it really outlines the dilemma that officials face with this well. Not sure how I feel about it, it's all terribly sad and there's really no clear line here. I do think it's funny that there are comments here that attack others for judging these parents, considering they are, in turn, just judging those with the opinion that it's criminal. I judge, no judgment. Let your god sort it out. snicker.
posted by IvoShandor at 3:29 AM on March 8, 2009


I don't think these people whose fuckup has resulted in almost unimaginable agony for both their child and themselves really need a peanut gallery to tell them that they're fuckups. They know, and they'll never forget, and they'll never forgive themselves. How could a jail sentence go any way towards altering/changing/adding to that?

Because some segments of the community have a lust for pure, unadulterated vengeance and if they don't get it they start bleating about justice.
posted by Talez at 3:43 AM on March 8, 2009 [6 favorites]


I don't understand why anyone could argue it's not a crime. As a parent your primary responsibility is to care for your child and these people were negligent in this task to the extent that the child died.

Now, it is prosecuted to determine whether they were negligent in the brain malfunctioned change of routine way, or in the too fucking high to notice the kid way. That's what trials do. To say that the grief they feel immunises them from prosecution is as wrong as saying they should go to jail to make up for the child's death. The jury decides these things, not (thank fuck) us.

I don't think I spend more than a few minutes not thinking about my daughter. The concept of forgetting her is alien and yet I know that this, or something like it, could easily happen to me. In fact, bar this unfortunate incident they are likely better parents than I am due to the more independent environment they are giving their children whilst I'm off buying cotton-wool by the truckload and injecting GPS trackers into my daughter's arm*

The sheer horror that these people go through I cannot comprehend, and if it was me I'd simply kill myself. The strength they have in carrying on with their life is beyond me, but whatever pain they live through they were negligent in the care of their child and that is a crime.

Also, thanks for the post life can be nasty and brutish and we're very lucky to have to be reminded of this. I thought about suggesting whether putting the child behind the passenger's seat would help, but then it would probably cause more deaths due to people begin distracted whilst driving.

*this is a joke, it's only a car-load of cotton-wool
posted by fullerine at 3:59 AM on March 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't understand why anyone could argue it's not a crime.

Because what in the world do you have to gain by ripping a presumably typically loving and responsible parent from a family unit just because they fucked up real bad?

Honestly. What the fuck do you have to gain? You think you're going to teach people not to be fuckups by throwing a 40 year old father of three (now two) with no criminal record in the clink?

We tried that before. The father will just become a drug addict or contract an STD and his life and the lives of his remaining kids will be ruined rather than trying to let a productive family piece their life back together. That parent will already suffer enough knowing it was their fuckup that caused the death of their child. To destroy the entire family unit because we think there needs to be a punitive punishment for one moment of gross stupidity with an otherwise spotless record of responsibility and care as well as no malice or forethought is utterly incomprehensible.
posted by Talez at 4:47 AM on March 8, 2009 [11 favorites]


Wow, well ... this was the wrong article to read before heading to bed ...
posted by EatTheWeak at 4:53 AM on March 8, 2009


One more thing: prosecutorial discretion. Just because some of the parents were negligent and some weren't doesn't mean every case needs to be dragged in front of a jury
posted by crayz at 5:16 AM on March 8, 2009


They deserve some empathy—sufficient, at least, that they not be treated like murderers, be made example of, and have the unutterable and disproportionate grief and guilt over what their stupid, simple error cost them compounded just because otherwise a bunch of strangers wouldn't be able to, god forbid, make hay over being hypothetically less imperfect beings.

This is why I stated early on in the thread yesterday that I was perfectly happy with juries looking at these situations, and voting to acquit. And I don't guess that jail time is any kind of an answer, unless there were drugs or other aggravating circumstances involved. But they need to be looked at. I'm sorry if this inconveniences you further in your time of grief. Really. I would most likely be rejected for such a jury if called to serve, and I'd understand why. but I don't think they just should be forgiven out of hand.

What about the "perfectly normal" parent, who one day is so overloaded with stress that the reach out and strike a screaming infant before they realize what they've done? We don't give folks who do that much slack at all.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:48 AM on March 8, 2009


First, I have to confess to not reading the article. I just can't bring myself to do it.

That being said, I have a 2 1/2 year old son who is in daycare, and when he was an infant (especially when he was in a rear-facing carseat) I lived in fear of doing this. (Now he sings and sings whenever we're in the car, so I know he'd let me know if I somehow forgot him.)

1) The amount of sleep deprivation you have as a new parent is simply unbelievable to anyone who hasn't been through it. I was functioning (working two jobs plus being mom) on about four hours of sleep for almost two years on end. You spend days in a fog, and more than once I would find myself in the midst of doing some routine thing (laundry, eating dinner) and have no idea how I'd gotten there.

2) Daycare providers making a call: I honestly can't imagine why every care provider doesn't do this. On a couple of occasions my husband has run late bringing my son in, and both times our care provider has called me if he's more than an hour past his regular drop-off time. This is so simple; I think all care providers should do it.

3) Routine: A couple of days each week, my husband drives me in to work rather than me driving myself. Its not unusual for him to get to the end of our street and make the left-hand turn to his "regular" route rather than the right-hand turn to take me in ... even though I'm sitting right there beside him.

I have no idea how these parents cope on a daily basis. If I did this to my child, I can't imagine anything that could keep me from killing myself. Living with the agony of imagining the pain and suffering I caused my child would be more than I could bear.

posted by anastasiav at 6:53 AM on March 8, 2009 [4 favorites]


Raise your hand if you couldn't sleep last night because you were thinking about this.

I know that in some of these cases it's the blip in the routine that leads to disaster, like the spouse that doesn't usually drop the kid off. That actually surprises me, because whenever we have that much of a change in our routine, it's drilled into my head even more that there's something different about today. I worry more about the parents who juggle their schedule and take turns. Maybe they even do that to eliminate the stress of leaving childcare to one spouse exclusively. But then that opens up the possibility that it's just as common to take the left turn to work as it is to take the right turn to daycare, and that could be enough when you're zoned out and listening to the news. It must happen hundreds of times a day that parents take that wrong turn, but because the kid is chatty, or the diaper bag is in the front seat, or the briefcase is in the back, it doesn't lead to tragedy.


The Kids and Cars website referenced in the article is a good resource if you want to advocate for more safety rules. I'd visited it before, I think when reading about window strangulation deaths. There was a link to the personal page of Mika Terry, whose father forgot her on the way to the construction job. It's told mostly from the mother's point of view, and includes her reactions to having her other children taken by Child protective services and the Grand Jury hearing.
posted by saffry at 7:22 AM on March 8, 2009


It's too easy to credit ourselves with good memories when what we may actually be good at is noticing reminders. And it's easy for babies to send no reminders, no signals of their presence, no movement or sound: they fall asleep. A lot.

Relying on memory alone to overcome this is never going to be enough. Few are capable of maintaining the OCD-like levels of scrupulence required to guarantee that they will never, ever forget to check the backseat on their way out of the car. Who can guarantee 100% success in remembering everything they have to do at precisely the right time? All it takes is one failure out of hundreds of routine successes to line up with the other necessary conditions, and bingo, you're the unlucky one in ten million.

The article shows that this phenomenon is largely a terrible by-product of changing where the child-seat goes, which ought to have us looking for solutions to that first and foremost. If sophisticated weight sensors are too hard a sell, how about some kind of cheap plastic mirror that sticks to the back window and means that the driver can see the baby every time he/she looks in the rear-view? They could bundle them with new carseats. Or put them on the back of those "Baby on Board" signs. Or hand them out in maternity wards.
posted by rory at 7:35 AM on March 8, 2009 [4 favorites]


Now, it is prosecuted to determine whether they were negligent in the brain malfunctioned change of routine way, or in the too fucking high to notice the kid way. That's what trials do. To say that the grief they feel immunises them from prosecution is as wrong as saying they should go to jail to make up for the child's death.

I don't have a problem with this provided there's evidence of negligence -- over and above the simple omission of action caused by a brain fart. However, what people appear to be arguing here is that all such cases should be prosecuted and left to be decided by a jury, regardless of whether there's any evidence demonstrating negligence.

In the USA, the legal costs involved in defending such an action would be sufficient to put most families into bankruptcy court. What about the impact of this on the rest of the family? Do they not matter?

Humans sometimes fail. We're none of us perfect, and most of the time, our failures don't have tragic consequences. But our lack of perfection isn't negligence -- it's simply what makes us human.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:22 AM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


But do we feel the same sympathy for a housekeeper, neighbor, friend, or van driver who, equally neglectfully, causes a child to die? If we answer "no," and demand they be prosecuted, we're holding children's caregivers to a higher standard of care than parents.

According to an AP story, 84% of outside caregivers have been charged with a crime in instances like these, as opposed to 49% of parents. And mothers are more likely to be charged than fathers.

That makes sense to me, though. If you're being paid to watch the child, or if you watch the child full-time, as mothers are far more likely to do than fathers, then what would explain the absence of the child for long periods of time? The parents featured in Weingarten's article think they have dropped the child off with a caregiver, so they go to work; responsibility fulfilled, in their minds. What would a paid caregiver or full-time parent be thinking if a child is not there?
posted by palliser at 8:43 AM on March 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Raise your hand if you couldn't sleep last night because you were thinking about this.

*Hand raised*. It ripped me up.
posted by pianoboy at 8:51 AM on March 8, 2009


Also a worthwhile (if heartbreaking read) from the Kids and Cars site: Mikey's story.

Both parents (university professors) recommend that other new parents SLOW DOWN.
posted by availablelight at 8:58 AM on March 8, 2009


I am looking forward to another link where we parents confess, anonymously, thanks to Metafilter, the worst mistakes or harm they've allowed or nearly allowed happen to their kids.

I'm alternating between: the week after my 3-year-old and I arrived home from China, I unknowingly allowed the dog into the house, which terrified the kid, who tried fleeing the dog by first stumbling and then launching herself from three steps up head first into the wooden door, leading me to believe she was dead until she started screaming vs. allowing the now-teenager to spend way too much time with a Pakistani boy who will never, ever be available to her because of his family's edicts but whose relationship I cannot break up because I fear a Romeo and Juliet situation.

How's that for one sentence?
posted by etaoin at 9:03 AM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Brockles: I know exactly what you mean. And that's why I'm letting you know, you are a candidate for exactly the sort of forgetting being discussed. You can easily "drop off the package" and check that item off your mental list, then forget that there were 2 packages today, and the precious one is the baby sleeping in the back seat. Simply because your mental list only had 1 package to check-off.

Once upon a time, on a road trip with my partner and a friend, we pulled into a rest area. It was night, and late, but not too far from the end of the journey. My partner was in the back seat, asleep, when I got out to use the bathroom, as did my friend.

When we got back, we jumped into the car and drove off.

It was about 40 minutes latter that we got to a junction, and weren't sure which was the right way, so we asked my partner. But he didn't respond. I pulled over and turned to the back seat. He wasn't visible. Then I did one of the silliest things I ever did: I looked under the jacket laying on the seat. He wasn't under the jacket.

That's when we realized our mistake. Quickly we found or way back the other direction and around again, to the rest area. He was there, and OMG, was he pissed! He thought we'd left him behind as a joke. It took some effort to get him calmed down to realize it wasn't on purpose (no, really, it wasn't!).

It's amazing how easy it is to forget something, or mistake a situation.
posted by Goofyy at 9:33 AM on March 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


Raise your hand if you couldn't sleep last night because you were thinking about this.

Hi, my name's Chris and I'm an insomniac, but yeah. What I found pondering this in the wee hours is how terribly conflicted I am, and what an unsolvable dilemma it is for me, besides doing whatever seems probable to lower the incident rate. I looked at moms with their kids at the grocery store this morning in a slightly different way after a good night's thinking about this. The children all got just a little more precious, and the moms and dads all got a little more human, like me. This has been a rather fruitful discussion for me, personally.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:32 AM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


That's when we realized our mistake.... It's amazing how easy it is to forget something, or mistake a situation.

But Goofyy, you must be what Brockles terms an "average case," and not be "intensely aware of details," and work in an industry "where the slightest lapse of attention can cause serious injury or worse." 'Cause if you were, leaving your buddy at the rest stop wouldn't have happened, damn it.

There was an amusing thread several years ago, where a MeFite seriously drew upon his extensive paintball and laser-tag experience to Monday-morning quarterback a dead Navy Seal's attempt to save his buddies from a live grenade in battle. Brockles' comments here remind me of that thread.
posted by jayder at 10:58 AM on March 8, 2009


Oh, for fucks sake. Does the fact that some people think completely differently to you truly blow your head up?

I find the concept of people not giving the inside of their car a visual once over before leaving it parked anywhere other than their driveway completely bizarre. I always look through the window to make sure I (or anyone else) haven't left anything on show that might get it broken into. I do this, without fail, every time I park it. Car theft (and of belongings within them) should be sufficiently high in anyone's mind that I truly do not understand why anyone would not do this. I did this even before the two times my car has been broken in to (the last occurrence was 15 years ago).

I can't imagine someone forgetting a child is in the car. But regardless, I also can't understand why anyone would park their car and walk away from it without as much as a glance through the window while locking it (even with a fob rather than a key). Consequently, I'm struggling to see (unless we're talking heavily tinted windows) how anyone could even be facing their car and simply not see that a baby seat is occupied.

But, like I have said, maybe I am super-paranoid. I'm starting to wonder whether the obvious, perfectly logical to me, normal procedures that I do every day are perhaps appearing to be borderline obsessive to most people. Do people really not even look in their car to check it before walking away? Seriously?

I've also never, ever, locked myself out of my house. I always, without fail, put my hands on my keys before closing the door. I've always done this, even now that I have a door that needs to be locked manually after closing. It's just what I do. It doesn't mean I am claiming to be super-fucking-human, it just means I do things as part of my normal life that I am surprised that no-one else does just to make their lives easier, or in this case, prevent an extremely bad situation as a side effect or normal actions.
posted by Brockles at 11:34 AM on March 8, 2009


Is there a breakdown by model of car? Does this happen as much with the cars that won't let you lock the driver's side door from the inside, so that you have to turn and do it from outside - which means your eyes are at least pointed back towards the car as you leave it?
posted by dilettante at 11:40 AM on March 8, 2009


Lock it with a key, I mean, rather than a pushbutton on a keychain.
posted by dilettante at 11:44 AM on March 8, 2009


It's a very newsworthy story, full of pathos, but it's designed to entertain,
with horror, catharsis, superiority and condemnation.
The actual statistics on infant death are much less amusing.

32 children a year die of hyperthermia in unattended cars.
350 infants a year are killed by assault.
4400 infants die a year because they are black.
posted by the Real Dan at 12:29 PM on March 8, 2009


How is leaving your kids in the car to cook to death any different than leaving them outside to freeze to death?

Jail time seems very appropriate in both cases.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:55 PM on March 8, 2009


4400 infants die a year because they are black.

Okay, I'll bite. Economic conditions? Poor medical care? Nutrition? Where'd you come up with that?
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:03 PM on March 8, 2009


the Real Dan, that's an amazing statistic. I was unaware that simply having a melanin surplus was so lethal. I suspect you meant the black kids die because their blackness attracts some other more directly lethal factor, such as poverty or assault, but the way you put that makes it just look a bit silly.
posted by localroger at 1:15 PM on March 8, 2009


How is leaving your kids in the car to cook to death any different than leaving them outside to freeze to death?

In the story you linked to, the father intentionally took his children into a blizzard. In the story posted here, the parents forgot their children were in the car and walked into their offices, oblivious to the fact that they had left them there.

One is an intentional act that leads to an unintentional but foreseeable consequence. The other is an unintentional act. The criminality of an act generally hinges on intent.
posted by palliser at 1:34 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Do people really not even look in their car to check it before walking away? Seriously?

Some people, sometimes: of course. Nobody's suggesting it's the norm: these events came about through a combination of a number of unlikely circumstances. That's why their rate of occurrence is so low.

I'm struggling to see (unless we're talking heavily tinted windows) how anyone could even be facing their car and simply not see that a baby seat is occupied.

Baby in the back, in a car-seat facing the rear; driver gets out of the front, and walks away from the car past the front instead of the back. Or a baby in a seat in the back of an SUV; five-foot driver gets out of the car and doesn't have a clear view down into the seat. And how about those tinted windows you mention? Aren't they going to be more common in hotter climates? Plenty of factors could be involved. All they have to do is combine in the wrong ways.

I also can't understand why anyone would park their car and walk away from it without as much as a glance through the window while locking it (even with a fob rather than a key).

Do you mean any parent, or anyone with a car, even if they're single and drive alone? Being able to lock the car behind your back while walking away is one of the fun things about fob locks. Plenty of people do it - and if they're in the habit of never leaving anything lying on the seats of their cars, it's theft-risk-free.

I've also never, ever, locked myself out of my house.

What are we supposed to conclude from that? That it's impossible for anyone else to lock themselves out of their house? Or that it's a sign of weakness if they do? It's great for you that you've never suffered that particular inconvenience, but it doesn't tell us anything about the overall risk of it happening to others.

Fair enough that you're surprised that some people aren't the same as you in these respects, but your being surprised is no evidence of the rightness or wrongness of either way of being.
posted by rory at 1:36 PM on March 8, 2009 [7 favorites]


A perhaps less loaded analogy: I don't ever forget where I left my keys or wallet. I am hyper-aware of them, and I am very aware of where I last left them. When staying at a hotel, I tend to leave all my stuff in some common place and I clear that place out before leaving. My wife, not so much; she's constantly bugging me because she can't find something. I can't understand that.

But lately, a distraction: I have a USB memory stick on my keychain. Great place for it, since I don't tend to lose my keychain. But what I do do, is I leave the damn USB key in a computer and walk off without my keys. This thing has ruined a lifetime of habit and assumptions about my habits. I am constantly finding myself at the car behind the company building and realizing that I don't have my keys because I left them hanging off the front of my computer.

This really is no different. Yes it's much more important but people work the way we work, and we're very imperfect. A change in routine, a crossed purpose, and you do something that seems very stupid without even realizing that you're doing it. And in the hyperthermia cases someone you care about very much dies. So much more worthy of a journalistic investigation than the times I've had to walk back to the office to get my keys, yet in my heart I know it's the same phenomenon.
posted by localroger at 1:51 PM on March 8, 2009 [4 favorites]


In the story you linked to, the father intentionally took his children into a blizzard. In the story posted here, the parents forgot their children were in the car and walked into their offices, oblivious to the fact that they had left them there.

Well, more that the father was (near-lethal drunkenly) seeking help for his injured kid and screwed it up big-time. Too shitfaced to be able to accomplish the task, let alone deal with the mistakes.

It seems to me that there has been a marked increase in the number of children being left to die in cars. Some fundamental thing has changed, and we need to figure out what it is and change it back. For whatever reason, parents didn't used to forget that they have children. Now they do. That doesn't bode well.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:57 PM on March 8, 2009


Infant mortality for "blacks" is 13.3 percent, which is over twice what it is for any other
"race". See page 22 of the document I cited. In 2006 8800 black infants died, so I
surmised that if black infant mortality was on par with the national average that
4400 of infants would not have died, all other things held equal.

In this document, the CDC discusses the black/white disparity in infant mortality.
Quoting from that document:The etiology of black-white disparities in low birth weight is complex
and is not explained entirely by demographic risk factors such as maternal age, education, or income (8)

posted by the Real Dan at 2:04 PM on March 8, 2009


It seems to me that there has been a marked increase in the number of children being left to die in cars. Some fundamental thing has changed

How people get out and lock their cars has changed, and quite drastically.
posted by dilettante at 2:08 PM on March 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


...parents didn't used to forget that they have children.

It's not that parents forget they have children. When you are on the job or participating in some other activity where your child is not present, and thus does not demand your attention, you're likely not focused on your children--at least not constantly. Many of these cases seem to happen when a parent is going to work and as part of a change in routine. When you go from one situation to another, or one place to another, or even one part of the day to another, your mind readjusts for the context. When you pull into the parking lot of your office, or walk through the door, these actions can be subconscious cues to rearrange your immediate mental priorities. This is necessary. You can't get your job done if you spend your workday constantly wondering how your child is being cared for; so you try to set up a situation such that you don't have to wonder. It is not that the importance of the child decreases because of this--just the present-moment attention.

I would guess that the fundamental thing that has changed has to do with the variety of roles we play, many of them by necessity to ensure our own or others' well-being, and how we're mentally built to navigate and compartmentalize them.
posted by troybob at 2:19 PM on March 8, 2009


It seems to me that there has been a marked increase in the number of children being left to die in cars. Some fundamental thing has changed, and we need to figure out what it is and change it back. For whatever reason, parents didn't used to forget that they have children. Now they do. That doesn't bode well.

Before air-conditioning became standard, you used to drive in hot weather with all the windows rolled down. And you'd have to roll them back up, one by one, when you wanted to lock the car up. You used to have to push down the little locking thing manually, on every seperate door, when you wanted to lock the car up. Some technologies have made all this easier, and also made it easier to get out of the driver's seat, close the door, and never look back.

Let's see: There was the time I was mowing the lawn and my son, who had been having a nap, came to look for me and fell twenty steps down the front porch. Seven stitches on his forehead, but no other harm done. I was at a park with a friend-- and this was by the ocean, forested, quite rocky-- and our kids both wandered down the path. It was two minutes before I realized that they were no longer playing quietly by the tree beside us-- imagine how I'd relive those two minutes for the rest of my life-- before I ran down the path and found them, my son and her daughter, both three year olds, heading for the shoreline. Staying with a friend at the rural house where she'd grown up, and our sons, both about four, were out on the porch, only a few feet away, and found a hand axe that had been left there and decided to try chopping wood like the grownups. By the grace of fortune and fortune alone I'm telling these stories as anecdotes on Metafilter instead of being destroyed by any one of them every day for the rest of my life. Assuming I hadn't offed myself.
posted by jokeefe at 2:42 PM on March 8, 2009 [4 favorites]


.... in other words, people who are making judgements here and who do not have children might want to step back a little.
posted by jokeefe at 2:43 PM on March 8, 2009 [4 favorites]


Do you mean any parent, or anyone with a car, even if they're single and drive alone?

Anyone. It's just ....sensible, to me, and would easily have prevented this issue. It is also a significantly more sensible, cheaper and easier solution than sensors and magic devices to prevent perfectly preventable tragedies, in my opinion, and has the added benefit of potentially reducing your car being broken into.

What are we supposed to conclude from that? That it's impossible for anyone else to lock themselves out of their house?

No. Just that making the effort to form one habit (the same as looking into your car when locking it) prevents a potentially unpleasant outcome. That I have always made efforts to form these habits, deliberately and consciously, was what made it hard for me to imagine this happening, because it never occurred to me to any significant degree that people don't think about these things in advance and force habits of their own until they become second nature.

I am definitely feeling myself shrinking into a more obsessive minority, the more this subject is touched on, that I never realised was the case. I just thought most people organised themselves like that as much as they practically could, and always considered it just common sense. I still find it fascinating how differently it seems most people seem to think about this kind of thing, no matter how much others here are insistent that I am somehow attempting to place myself on a pedestal and dismiss the rest of the world as idiots.

The USB stick story is interesting, though. That shows the problems with messing with an established procedure, and I can see how that goes horribly wrong.
posted by Brockles at 2:48 PM on March 8, 2009


I finally brought myself to read the story, and it's one of the best pieces of journalism I've read in a long time—thanks for posting it. It saddens but doesn't surprise me that there are people capable of reading that and still posturing about how they could never do something like that and the parents who do this evil thing should be prosecuted. Here's an interesting bit from near the end:
"This is a case of pure evil negligence of the worse kind . . . He deserves the death sentence."

"I wonder if this was his way of telling his wife that he didn't really want a kid."

"He was too busy chasing after real estate commissions. This shows how morally corrupt people in real estate-related professions are."

These were readers' online comments to The Washington Post news article of July 10, 2008, reporting the circumstances of the death of Miles Harrison's son. These comments were typical of many others, and they are typical of what happens again and again, year after year in community after community, when these cases arise. A substantial proportion of the public reacts not merely with anger, but with frothing vitriol.

Ed Hickling believes he knows why. Hickling is a clinical psychologist from Albany, N.Y., who has studied the effects of fatal auto accidents on the drivers who survive them. He says these people are often judged with disproportionate harshness by the public, even when it was clearly an accident, and even when it was indisputably not their fault.

Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.

In hyperthermia cases, he believes, the parents are demonized for much the same reasons. "We are vulnerable, but we don't want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we'll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don't want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters."

After Lyn Balfour's acquittal, this comment appeared on the Charlottesville News Web site:

"If she had too many things on her mind then she should have kept her legs closed and not had any kids. They should lock her in a car during a hot day and see what happens."
There's some profound stuff there, in between the asshole quotes.
posted by languagehat at 3:21 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I just thought most people organised themselves like that as much as they practically could...

Yeah, that's not necessarily true. But even those who do will organize themselves in different ways. Everybody is not vigilant about the same things. Habits can be a good thing, such that they can reinforce responsible behavior. But they can also be a bad thing to rely on, in that the factors they depend upon can be adjusted unpredictably, and the more deeply ingrained the habit, the less one might be able to make the necessary mental readjustment. You might forget to look back at your car if it's not your car and you're trying to figure out how the owner's alarm works. You might forget to check for your keys on leaving the house if you are trying to sneak out without your wife knowing about it. Habits often rely on external cues that can change unexpectedly.
posted by troybob at 3:21 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


languagehat: In addition to what Hickling says, I wonder how much is tied up in our ideas of accident and liability. In less-catastrophic situations, even trivial ones, we often seem to need to assign blame, whether by carelessly ascribing motive or demanding an unrealistic standard of human perfection.
posted by troybob at 3:32 PM on March 8, 2009


I always look through the window to make sure I (or anyone else) haven't left anything on show that might get it broken into. I do this, without fail, every time I park it.

So you're saying that despite the fact that you *know* you don't keep anything in your car that could be stolen, and you *know* that you haven't carried anything in the car on that particular trip, you *still* spend time giving the inside of your car the once-over, just in case something has magically appeared in there since the last time you drove and you weren't aware of it?

Have you ever thought of seeking treatment for OCD, Brockles?

No. Just that making the effort to form one habit (the same as looking into your car when locking it) prevents a potentially unpleasant outcome.

It works perfectly until you forget to do it.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:52 PM on March 8, 2009


I just do not understand the attitude that it's negligence to fail to be superhuman. A major point of the article is that this type of tragic accident occurs as a result of the normal function of the human brain - and that it can happen no matter how loving and attentive you are. We can't override our human bodies and our human minds simply out of discipline or desire.

Believing that it could never happen to you because you would be so much more careful might be comforting, but it's not true.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:57 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


you *still* spend time giving the inside of your car the once-over

By 'once over', I mean the fraction of a second it takes to scan the seats front and back with my eyes as I look through the windows (main purpose being to double check the central locking has worked). It's not like I search the thing every time with white gloves and tweezers in a Monk-like frenzy.

Have you ever thought of seeking treatment for OCD, Brockles?

No. I don't think that attention to detail is necessarily a disorder.
posted by Brockles at 4:10 PM on March 8, 2009


So time poor.
posted by fistynuts at 4:39 PM on March 8, 2009


Before air-conditioning became standard, you used to drive in hot weather with all the windows rolled down. And you'd have to roll them back up, one by one, when you wanted to lock the car up. You used to have to push down the little locking thing manually, on every separate door, when you wanted to lock the car up. Some technologies have made all this easier, and also made it easier to get out of the driver's seat, close the door, and never look back.

That would probably explain it. Electric door locks and windows are nearly ubiquitous, where they essentially didn't exist a few decades ago. A case where technology is biting (some of) us in the ass.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:43 PM on March 8, 2009


Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.


I suppose we really ought to put it down to mere coincidence that the esteemed editors of the Washington Post have chosen to run this truly wringing call to compassion and humane treatment for the devastated parents whose awful blunders led to a horror those parents would have given anything to avoid, the deaths of their own children by hyperthermia in locked cars, not in the immediate wake of such a tragedy, and not at the height of summer when the danger of this kind of accident is at a peak, but rather this end of winter weekend when it just so happens that the mood of the public across this entire country has turned gravely toward thoughts (communicated in volume to our representatives, apparently) of justice for, redress from, and retribution against the demonically arrogant and corrupted mortgage brokers, banking and insurance executives, hedge-fund managers, and politicians who have stolen half of our pensions and the college funds of those tens of millions of our children who miraculously escaped the perils of overheated cars.

Yes, it must have been the random workings of the universe itself which have done these terrible things to us despite vigilant and responsible behavior by those we entrusted our futures to, not heedless, sociopathic greed which cries out to heaven for punishment.
posted by jamjam at 5:01 PM on March 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


Just that making the effort to form one habit (the same as looking into your car when locking it) prevents a potentially unpleasant outcome.

Brockles, though I disagree with some of your comments, I find your argument pretty interesting.

When I started commuting, I, too, created a little routine to be able to make sure I had exact change for the parking lot at the train station, my commuter ticket and subway pass, and work ID card. I set them in a specific spot each night. But one day when I had to take extra papers to work, I skipped right over the ID card, which was exactly where it always was. I wouldn't even be able to tell you, without thinking about it, how many things I lay out each night but my brain knew and apparently decided I'd picked up everything.

And routines sound nice but we sometimes simply forget, we get distracted and we screw up. That's the point the memory experts were making. Being 100 percent confident of your routine may some time come back to bite you--I truly hope it doesn't but being sure of your memory and routine is not a guarantee of perfection. The frightening aspect of these parents' stories is how relatively simple actions or changes threw them off and led to tragedy. I'm a little at a loss as to why what sounds like a good explanation for memory issues doesn't seem to have more weight with more people. I also like the technology change arguments--self-locking doors, etc., as a factor in our lack of attention to detail.

I don't glance back into my car as a routine if only because I have no reason to. You're a different kind of person and your careful approach seems to work for you. But that doesn't mean it would work for everyone. And at the risk of annoying you, you say you always check. But maybe, just maybe, some days you don't and you don't know that because you haven't forgotten something important. These parents remember every excruciating detail because they screwed up. Ordinarily, I doubt they would.
posted by etaoin at 5:07 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's OCD to give your car a once-over before you leave it parked. I don't do it, but whatever.

So why browbeat someone because he habitually takes the sort of precautions that would prevent something like this from happening? Is he supposed to break down, Perry Mason-style, and sob, "Yes, yes, it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone"?

There is more than one reasonable response to this article -- "it could happen to me," yes, but also "wow, I would think people would be more careful than that when ferrying their kids around."

And yes, I think it could happen to me, if the circumstances lined up, Swiss cheese-style. But I also think it's never going to happen again to the people in that article, which means I think there's a mindset and level of vigilance people could have that would prevent it, which means I take someone at his word if he says that's how he is.
posted by palliser at 5:21 PM on March 8, 2009


I thought this quote from the story was especially poignant:

"Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible."

People think this way about a lot of the misfortunes that befall others, but in this scenario, it's especially callous, and dangerous, to indulge in such hubris.

Great article.
posted by peggynature at 5:22 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I am interested in the fact that in all of these stories of tragic infant deaths, sleep deprivation was only mentioned twice in that article. I am willing to bet that with the "Swiss cheese hole alignment" explanation, sleep deprivation is a major hole.

Two memorable occasions: my mother once left my sleeping sister in the infant seat of the shopping trolley in the grocery store parking lot. She packed the back of the wagon with the groceries, and drove off. She was back within three minutes, but this could have been tragic. A few weeks later, we were all in a store and someone asked my mother my sister's name. My mother couldn't remember it, and told the lady "Oh. We just call her the baby."

She was phenomenally sleep deprived, as most parents of infants are - particularity parents of colicky night owls who require all night block circling to sleep. I have found myself in similar circumstances of sleep deprivation, and it fucks your cognitive function up. In the same day, I have put a coffee cup in the fridge, left cash in the cash machine, and tried to answer the remote control instead of the phone, complete with pushing all the buttons in an attempt to get it to pick up the call.

I can absolutely understand how, in that sort of state - a normal state for many parents - "car packed - yes" leaves an infant behind, or how "drop off - made" leaves an infant to die in a car.

It's not a crime. It's parenthood on what will be the worst day of your life.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:33 PM on March 8, 2009 [10 favorites]


I have sometimes thought of some kind of wristwatch-like beacon that had a built-in heart rate monitor or something, and a panic button for older children to use (and to prevent accidental usage perhaps hitting it repeatedly would be needed, or holding the button down, etc). Maybe even a GPS unit or something, though I doubt they can be made that small (yet).

Of course that doesn't protect you on the day you forget to attach it to your child's wrist.

I think this could happen to just about anyone, and I cannot imagine the pain these parents go through. The people who think they are too perfect to ever forget, well congratulations on your superiority. I'm sure the first time you forget something significant you'll post your contrition to this thread, right?

Unless you are anxiety-prone or OCD, once your brain thinks your responsibilities are taken care of, you focus on your other stresses. This is less common than being hit by lightning, and it's a mystery why it isn't even more common, imho.

Once I accidentally locked my keys in my car with my friend's child inside. He was about one year old, asleep in the car seat. His mom had just been picked up by an ambulance because she fainted at the army base grocery store in Hawaii. Luckily I managed to yell loud enough and get the help of the base cops who had also responded, and one of them showed up with a slim-jim very quickly and saved my bacon. If he hadn't, I would have asked that the car window be broken to get him out (it was a new car, but who cares). I remember the panic and fear with which I stared at him, terrified of each tiny little droplet of sweat on his nose. This whole thing lasted but a few minutes though, and he slept through the whole thing. I took him to the clinic where his mom was and she was fine, just had a bit of hypoglycemia.

If I were one of these parents, I'd be dead the day after it happened. They don't mention what the actual suicide rate is.
posted by marble at 6:03 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ike_Arumba, the Weingarten piece on Joshua Bell playing in the Metro was so good that it deserves, in my opinion, the small derail I'm going to create here.

On topic, this was an incredible article about a subject that, to me, sets up an epic battle between emotion and reason. Emotion wants a pound of flesh for an innocent child frying in the backseat of a car in some depressing parking lot. Reason tells me that these are not people who meant any harm to their children at all, and that they were not engaged in any behavior worth punishing, and that their remorse will be punishment enough.
posted by rollbiz at 6:11 PM on March 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


the lack of empathy in this thread is astounding. I find it revealing that actual parents are universally lining up on one side of the issue.

Imagine if everytime you left the headlights on while you were at work, somebody died. That's essentially what we're talking about here. Normal, everyday human frailty that ends with tragic consequences.
posted by empath at 6:15 PM on March 8, 2009 [5 favorites]


And routines sound nice but we sometimes simply forget, we get distracted and we screw up. That's the point the memory experts were making.

Nonetheless, it remains better to consciously develop and engage in such routines, particularly when you're responsible for a car-seater, than to dismiss them as imperfect and thus end up accidently roasting one's child.

We need a parental meme: if you put carseats in your car, you should always check they're empty before you walk away. This is the sort of thing a good public broadcasting system can be used for. I can easily visualize this being some sort of weirdass mid-70s CBC public safety message.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:38 PM on March 8, 2009


.
posted by alms at 8:08 PM on March 8, 2009


Uh, I have OCD, and nothing about Brockles comments suggest he has OCD in any way. He simply checks his car before he leaves it. Just wanted to say, Brockles, I'm as puzzled as to why you're getting more scrutiny about your behavior as you are.
posted by agregoli at 8:28 PM on March 8, 2009


(Also, lack of empathy? I see tons of empathy in this thread.)
posted by agregoli at 8:32 PM on March 8, 2009


the lack of empathy in this thread is astounding. I find it revealing that actual parents are universally lining up on one side of the issue.

Imagine if everytime you left the headlights on while you were at work, somebody died. That's essentially what we're talking about here. Normal, everyday human frailty that ends with tragic consequences.


I don't think there's been a lack of empathy. There has been a small minority of folks who disagree with your analogy. And I think they're motivated by empathy, too, for people they see as having been victims of negligence.

Anyway, in a world run by babies, they'd probably say, "It could have happened to you, huh? It could have happened to ME! Get a rope."
posted by palliser at 9:31 PM on March 8, 2009


This article was devastating to read. It's a phenomenal piece of journalism, but mostly I'm sitting here imagining the snap of a sniper's bullet going right past my ear. I'm a paramedic. And I'm judgemental, and self-assured, and arrogant. Right up until today, I was one of those people who would go completely Old Testament and self-righteous: I would never do anything like this. How could any parent do something like this? Anyone who does this deserves to be punished as much as possible. Etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseum infinitum.

That was before I read this section of the article:
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.
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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."
My son, around whom my life revolves, was born in February 2005. That September, I began paramedic training, which is often described as roughly two years of medical school compressed into about 16 months. During my paramedic training, which was essentially (and, at the end, literally) a full-time 40-60 hour job, I continued to work full-time at my "day job". The hours added up: in full roar, I was working, studying, or doing clinical rounds 7 days a week for about eight months straight, and that was just the classroom. When I went into my internship, I was working fulltime as a paramedic while working fulltime as a technical writer, and commuting (on paramedic days) about 1.5 hours each way.

The point of this litany of woe is not to establish that I'm some sort of Herculean superman, look at me, wow, ain't I the bee's balls. The reason I'm laying that out is to establish that for about two years, I was operating under intense stress, often on limited sleep, trying to balance becoming a paramedic, the demands of my day job, and life as a father and husband. It was supremely challenging, and we barely survived it as a family. Because I'm one of Those People, I've always operated on the assumption that I have a more or less unlimited tolerance for privation and stress when I want to do something. I can do anything, no matter how much it hurts. Right?

So why am I sitting here thinking "we dodged a bullet. Oh my God. That could have been us. That could have been me"? Because not only did I have exactly the blackouts he talks about, I had them repeatedly. And I had them repeatedly during a period of time when I was taking my son to school at least three days a week. On the days I didn't work as a medic, I'd take my son to his school, drop him off, and head to work 15 miles up the road. His mother would pick him up in the evening.

At my day job, a running joke is my "lost year", which was the year I was doing all this. There are multiple anecdotes of me having entire conversations with my boss about not only what day it was, but what week. It's a convenient excuse: "oh, that was during Ashton's Lost Year, so that's why he doesn't remember it". It's a funny joke, right up until I remember that it's not really a joke: I really don't remember a lot of that year. Zip. Nada. Nothing. Whole weeks, gone. Parties I hosted that I can't recall. Pictures of me at events, looking baffled and slightly hostile: events I can't remember. Letters my wife wrote me, that I don't recall. Trips to visit family that, for the life of me, I can't find in my memories.

And that leads me to tonight, when I'm reading this article, and I realize in the pit of my stomach that only the blindest and dumbest of luck separated me from being one of those parents. That purely by chance, for some reason, I managed to never have this happen, not because I'm that vigilant, or because I'm that amazing a parent, but simply because I got lucky and it didn't happen to me.

It would be comforting to think that it's because I'm a great parent, and an all-around swell guy who can handle anything life throws at me. It would also be delusional. Like I said, I'm a paramedic. I've got a lot of experience with the random and essentially impersonal workings of the universe. Most people, when they're lucky enough to get last words, don't summarize: they say "no", or "not me", or they call for their mother. They say "oh no" and "stop" and "help". I don't know about you, but none of those things sounds like a sudden epiphany about the plan to the universe: as far as I can tell, there is no plan. There is no greater purpose. There is no higher power save chaos. Things happen, and sometimes they happen to us, but more often they happen to other people. When they happen to us, we rail against the universe, which has it in for us. And when they happen to other people, we think there but for the grace of God and go on with our lives.

Or we try to, at least. We try to until we read, and realize, and think about bullets passing so close you can hear them. For some reason, there but for the grace of God is freezing in my throat tonight. The words won't come.

Tomorrow morning will not be an easy one. I'll wake up, and shower, and get dressed, and take my magnificent Boy to school, and I will try very, very hard not to think about what might have been. Instead, I will thank the random number generator that governs the universe for not calling my number during a period when I so richly invited it to. And I would invite those of you who are swearing up and down that it could never happen to you to examine yourself for certainties, and treat them with the greatest suspicion.
posted by scrump at 10:14 PM on March 8, 2009 [289 favorites]


This will never happen to me. I am not forgetful. I am vigilant. I have a plan and routine. The world is controllable. I cannot understand how this could ever happen.

42 childen died of hyperthermia in 2008.
~80 people die of lightning strikes per year.
posted by benzenedream at 11:40 PM on March 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Imagine if everytime you left the headlights on while you were at work, somebody died.

I'd probably start checking my headlights when I left my car.
posted by markr at 11:41 PM on March 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


The print version of this story has a sidebar on ways to help prevent this type of tragedy. I think it is worth having a direct link to that sidebar in this thread.

I was 10 when my 4 year old sister almost drowned at a country club pool. She was being watched by my parents, and the pool had a lifeguard, but 4 year olds are quick and wiley and she was goofing around near the deep end and slipped and fell. Pretty much no one saw her fall in, including the lifeguard, as the pool was crowded that day. Fortunately one young girl saw, swam over, and lifted her out of the water, just as my parents were rather frantically looking for her. It took some effort to get the water out of her lungs and get her breathing again, but she made it. The guilt my parents felt was intense, and they have carried that guilt and trauma with them throughout their lives, and I can't even imagine what they would have felt if she had actually drowned. My parents were good and very careful parents, who even had gone to the trouble of getting specially installed seat belts/harnesses in our car for us kids in the era before seat belts in cars were mandatory. It just took a few seconds of inattention on everyone's part for that incident to happen. I feel for the parents in the Post story, who must suffer every day for the mistake they made.
posted by gudrun at 11:42 PM on March 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the story, scrump. I think we're all a little shaky as we buckle them in the last couple of days.

For what it's worth, I think the more likely danger you and your boy avoided was a car accident. When it comes to driving, sleep deprivation isn't far from drunkenness. Us parents of young children should think about that as we (sometimes over)fill our plates.
posted by palliser at 8:04 AM on March 9, 2009


Gene Weingarten is hosting a live chat right now about the story. If you don't read the entire thing, just the introduction where he explains why he felt like he had to write this story is very, very much worth it:

Any writer who claims to be completely unbiased is lying either to you or to himself; we are humans, we have opinions and prejudices, we hold certain assumptions about life. The absolute best we can do -- and it is usually enough -- is to make an honest effort to prevent those opinions, prejudices and assumptions from hijacking our words. As it happens, I went into this story with an overwhelming empathy for the parents whose inattention led to the deaths of their children. I believed it could happen to anyone, and I believe that because it almost happened to me. Twenty-five years ago, I almost killed my daughter.
posted by iminurmefi at 9:36 AM on March 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


Meta.
posted by jokeefe at 10:15 AM on March 9, 2009


Several cases like this were in the news the year I had my first son, and I was once with a friend when she got out of the car and walked cheerfully away, and I had to call her back to get her baby. It freaked me out. I was also anxious about the possibility of locking the baby in the car when I got out. I developed a couple of habits designed to reduce the risks of these things. I never closed the driver's side door until I had opened the back door, and I always put my purse in the back with the baby, rather than on the front seat next to me. I know there have been snarky comments above like, "yeah, habits like that work until they don't," but, for me, it was about risk reduction.

We've all done things like get distracted and drive to work instead of to the store, or put the milk in the cupboard and the cereal in the fridge. This kind of mistake seems like that same kind of brain-hijacking, but with devastating results.
posted by not that girl at 10:30 AM on March 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


So why browbeat someone because he habitually takes the sort of precautions that would prevent something like this from happening?

What browbeating there is is not because he takes precautions, but because he apparently believes that those precautions are infallible and that if everyone were like him the tragedies in the article would not have happened. I am not saying he does believe this, but it's a reasonable inference from what he said, and such a belief would be a stupid one, based on magical thinking and a refusal to deal with the facts presented in the article—facts that convinced scrump, self-described as "judgemental, and self-assured, and arrogant," that it could have happened to him. (Superb comment, by the way.) Anyone who thinks it couldn't happen to them is a fool.

Don't get me wrong: obviously habits chosen to reduce the risk of such things happening are a good thing, and it's fine to be proud of them. Being sure that they remove all danger is dangerous idiocy.
posted by languagehat at 11:05 AM on March 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


That was a very difficult article to read. It's my worst nightmare, realized. Those poor parents. :(

I just ordered two of these. I wouldn't have known about them if I hadn't read this article, so thank you, Ike_Arumba and gudrun.

Since my kids came, I've been sleep-deprived, exhausted and distracted. I've been functioning on adrenaline, caffeine and sheer willpower for 13 months, because even though one of the twins sleeps through most nights, her brother is up at all hours (which means his parents are too,) and nothing we've done to date has helped. I used to have a photographic memory, and it's shot to hell. I can't remember what I ate for breakfast most days. My work has suffered, badly.

I fell asleep at the wheel once last July while driving to work (In Manhattan at Amsterdam Avenue, around 150th Street.) Thank heaven I was at a stop light, and didn't take my foot off the brake. I've fallen asleep on trains. Buses. I constantly forget where I parked my car. I routinely fall asleep in the nursery with at least one of my children in my arms, and I'm seriously concerned that at some point I'm going to allow one to slip and hit the floor. There's a loss of control inherent to severe sleep deprivation. I never would have believed this possible before I had kids.

I've know the sound of that sniper bullet, scrump. It scares the living hell out of me.
posted by zarq at 11:17 AM on March 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


he apparently believes that those precautions are infallible and that if everyone were like him the tragedies in the article would not have happened.

That was why I got annoyed - at the extrapolations made from my responses. The vast number of which were entirely unwarranted. I'm not sure anyone, even me, suggested that they remove all risk and are infallible.

However, greater usage of those sorts of habits and procedures would, I believe, reduce the number of these to being classified as 'freak occurrences' rather than of sufficient volume to warrant such an article. No-one can prevent freak coincidences, as anyone with a brain knows. But any response to lower the number of these per year is a good thing, no?

Perhaps if people can get over the fact that a suggested response isn't necessarily any claim of magical perfection, they'd bloody listen to the point being made.
posted by Brockles at 11:21 AM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


greater usage of those sorts of habits and procedures would, I believe, reduce the number of these to being classified as 'freak occurrences' rather than of sufficient volume to warrant such an article

But that's clearly not true. These people are not happy-go-lucky types with no useful habits; lots of them had routines they thought would keep something like this from happening. They happened anyway, because of unforeseeable concatenations of circumstances that could happen to anyone, even you. You still don't seem to grasp that. Fine, you're not saying "they remove all risk and are infallible," but you're attributing far more power to them than makes sense. The awareness of having a protective routine is one of the things that makes people so sure their kids are fine even when they're not.
posted by languagehat at 11:36 AM on March 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


Ach, poor parents. I'm not a parent and I couldn't stop thinking about this last night. I can easily imagine how this could happen even to loving and conscientious people.

Then I started thinking about how to make cheap gadgets & hacks to solve the problem.

Maybe a solar-powered motion detector for the car? The solar battery part could sit in the back window to stay charged, and the motion-detecting beam thingie could be mounted on a door and pointed across the back seat. Solar means you wouldn't have to turn it on or get new batteries for it- you could just buy it and forget it. (And not to be macabre, but if it's not sunny out, or the car is parked indoors, leaving the kid in the backseat is much less likely to be lethal, even in winter, since babies survive cold much better than heat.) If something moved in the car after the car had been still for say 20 minutes, the motion detector would activate a remote keychain thingie.

Or some sort of loud noise if the car-seat remains buckled more than 20 minutes after the car has been parked?

Definitely a mirror in the backseat, angled to match one attached the rearview mirror, so when looking in the driving reariew, you see the baby's face in the monitor mirror.

The teddy bear in the baby seat is a nice idea (if the baby seat is occupied, the teddy sits in the front seat) but how does the teddy get back into the baby seat? What busy parent is gonna remember to put the teddy back in the carseat every single time? It's just gonna end up forgotten on the floor of the car.

Maybe you could make a habit of playing kid music whenever the kid is in the car, and only listening to grownup music when the kid isn't? Or turning on some kind of kid-friendly noisemaker in the backseat? (But what if the kid is fluish and sleeping, as one of the kids in the article was?)

Be really vehement that the caregiver call if the kid is even 10 minutes late, and keep calling until they reach you? The first time this happens because you're stuck in traffic or whatever, give the caregiver a big fat $ tip to encourage them to keep trying to get through to you despite the hassle next time the kid is late?

My mom hated having the car hot when she got back to it, so she had those cardboard windshield shades that she'd stretch over the big windows any time the car would be parked outside in warm weather for more than a few minutes. It only took a second, but that little habit would totally have saved any of those babies.

Of course no habit is foolproof, but the more slices of swiss cheese you have, the less likely that all the holes will align. Those poor, poor parents- my heart goes out to them.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:49 AM on March 9, 2009


But that's clearly not true.

If you're not suggesting that there is no change in their habits that can have helped this, then you didn't make your point very well, as that is what it sounds like you are saying. Adding double checking of the interior of your car habitually before leaving it would massively reduce the chance of this happening. As would always putting your purse/briefcase in the back seat. It doesn't take much to make this far, far less likely to happen. None of the forces in the articles were unforeseeable. It was just stress and bad circumstances - trying to operate on auto pilot in those conditions is clearly a bad idea and a nasty learning experience. Modifying a routine so there are decent check points that force side effects like going in the back to get your bag and so increasing the chances of you seeing the baby WILL HELP THIS in the times your brain is not operating at 100% through fatigue - now this is added, you need to forget your bag, to look into your car AND the baby to make the same mistake. Surely this makes it less likely? I'm baffled that this isn't blindingly obvious.

lots of them had routines they thought would keep something like this from happening.

I can't see a single example to support that in the article, though. Not one example states that their routine was at all affected or created by a desire to stop this happening - precisely the point of people saying "This shit can happen, change your routine so it can't". There is no evidence that their routines were formed as a preventative measure at all (which is what I think you are implying) or even with any awareness of this possibility.

The awareness of having a protective routine is one of the things that makes people so sure their kids are fine even when they're not.

Getting into the habit of double checking your own routine is also a habit. It's the habit that I find most useful in my daily and working lives. Using a routine that works is only at maximum usefulness as long as you keep checking it is the routine that works best. If you find (or hear about) something that you find sufficiently worrying that your routine wouldn't have picked up on means you need to modify your routine, to me. Parents that hear about this and DON'T put their purse/bag/briefcase in the back seat of the car every single time from now on are the ones that this is more likely to happen to from now on.

I'm not necessarily referring to routines as something that is evolved purely from an automatic habit from repetition, but more as a means to perform an oft repeated task consistently and efficiently. Or, in this case, safely. Having 'a habit' isn't as good as 'forming the best habit you can think of, but keep checking it anyway'.
posted by Brockles at 12:06 PM on March 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Fine, you're not saying "they remove all risk and are infallible," but you're attributing far more power to them than makes sense. The awareness of having a protective routine is one of the things that makes people so sure their kids are fine even when they're not.


This seems to be shading into the following piece of advice: Take no precautions because they only give you a false sense of security. That can't be right -- I mean, seatbelt usage has saved lives; it hasn't just made us all terrible drivers.

What about Devils Rancher's point, that he would use the car ride to daycare as an opportunity to engage with the child in the back? If that's something you look forward to, wouldn't you do it every day? Do you ever forget your morning cup of coffee?

Again, I'm a pretty forgetful person myself (had to use the spare car key just this morning), and I've already logged a few I-can't-believe-I-just-did-that parenting moments in the last two and a half years, and I use my car trips to listen to music and stuff, but I do believe there are some people to whom this particular evil couldn't happen.
posted by palliser at 12:14 PM on March 9, 2009


Because not only did I have exactly the blackouts he talks about, I had them repeatedly. And I had them repeatedly during a period of time when I was taking my son to school at least three days a week... That purely by chance, for some reason, I managed to never have this happen, not because I'm that vigilant, or because I'm that amazing a parent, but simply because I got lucky and it didn't happen to me.

This is actually a bad example of the article which was trying to establish that this was the kind of thing that could happen to anybody, even the most responsible parents. LarryC captures the banality of mind fart.

But if you were blacking-out habitually like this, then this was not normal mental health, and you were simply in no position to take care of children, much less to drive a car. You were lucky that nothing happened. And you'd be even luckier if you weren't found guilty of some sort of negligence. This seems at least equivalent to a drunk driver killing someone with their car, which most people agree should be punishable as some lesser type of homicide.
posted by dgaicun at 12:19 PM on March 9, 2009


A weird thing that is one possible solution: The 2010 Toyota Prius will have an optional solar powered ventilation system to keep the car cool when parked in the sun
posted by hydropsyche at 12:26 PM on March 9, 2009


But if you were blacking-out habitually like this, then this was not normal mental health, and you were simply in no position to take care of children, much less to drive a car.
Perhaps.

But I think the reason that what I wrote is getting the attention it is is precisely because so many "normal" people can completely identify with what I described. The "blackouts" I describe are so commonplace in the medical field that they pass without comment until someone brings it up: of particular note is this 2003 study that showed sleep-deprived resident physicians were as impaired as drunk drivers.

I think almost everyone has had the experience described in the article, where the basal ganglion takes over and does the work: the "wait, how did I get here without thinking about it?" moment.

My point in writing my comment, for better or worse, was to fully face up to what so many of us do without thinking: push ourselves far, far beyond where we should, risking everything in the mistaken belief that we are in complete control. LarryC's comment is a perfect example of a potentially catastrophic, momentary lapse of attention that could happen to anyone. Maybe my comment can stand as a useful example of how so many of us invite catastrophe without ever intending to do so, or even being aware of doing so.
posted by scrump at 12:34 PM on March 9, 2009


I think almost everyone has had the experience described in the article, where the basal ganglion takes over and does the work: the "wait, how did I get here without thinking about it?" moment.

I don't have children, but this to me is what resonates about all of this. I'm not habitually stressed out or sleep deprived or anything else, but I have absolutely had those moments.

About 3 months after I quit my last job, I was headed downtown to meet some friends for dinner, and when I got to the intersection of the Eastbound highway with a North/South bound highway, my brain, on autopilot, took the Northbound exit instead of the Southbound exit. Northbound, towards my office. Where I didn't work anymore. And hadn't for 3 months.

I forgot where I was going while I was going there.

And that happened while I was perfectly relaxed and just going to meet some friends for dinner. Add stress, exhaustion and a busy day ahead to that scenario, and I can see how this could happen to anyone. I hope that people who read this story will add specific elements to their routine to help prevent this kind of situation in their future. And I hope that when those routines inevitably breakdown for some tiny percentage of them, everyone else who read this will be able to empathize and feel compassion for them. For surely they will be going through their own private hell, and won't need public condemnation to help them along the way.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:02 PM on March 9, 2009


Every morning, I put a scoop of cat food in each of two dishes, and tend to check whether there's anything I could pick up in the kitchen while I wait for my girlfriend to finish getting busy for work. The other day, I was going to throw away some garbage as well, and I ended up grabbing the food scoop, walking over to the garbage, and throwing about a quarter cup of cat food into the bag.

There's no self-checking on all human routines, and if there were, then eventually the self-checking becomes routine, and so on. Due diligence makes sense, and would diminish the number of cases like this post, but I really doubt that it would eliminate all cases. Think about the poor parent who does routinely glance in the back seat, only to one day glance over the kid without mentally registering that the child sitting there is out of place, and walk into work.

The human mind doesn't work objectively, and it doesn't work like a machine, and it doesn't fail because it fails to follow the rules -- it fails because memory and perception are a pool of many factors and not an on/off switch. There was a report on 60 Minutes last night about the fallibility of eyewitness memory. The central case of the story was that of a woman who testified against a man she felt to be her rapist, returned to court on his appeal to sit only feet away from the man who actually raped her, and have no recognition that she had testified against the wrong man.

Your mind isn't a computer program that can have a statement saying "check for baby, if baby is there, change course." Things get in the way that blur perception and alter the program, blur the intentions, change the course of action.
posted by mikeh at 1:03 PM on March 9, 2009 [6 favorites]


But if you were blacking-out habitually like this, then this was not normal mental health, and you were simply in no position to take care of children, much less to drive a car.

I agree that such a situation is not an example of normal mental health.

Yet parents don't get time off for good behavior. We're always going to have responsibilities. And while all children are completely dependent on us for their every need, babies and toddlers require constant attention and supervision. A couple of weekends ago, my 13-month old daughter was safely strapped into a high chair. As I watched, she pulled her barrette out of her hair, stared at it for a moment then popped it into her mouth. And Daddy said a bad word, because I had to dive in and fish it out before she swallowed.

Of course, she bit me. If the kid's first words are "OW! Fuck! Let Go!" my wife's gonna be pretty pissed....

My point is that even if we aren't at our best and are massively sleep deprived, we have to keep going no matter what. That's the nature of parenthood. When we assume we have everything under control, we do so because we have no realistic alternative, or perhaps inadequate support systems.
posted by zarq at 1:12 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Maybe my comment can stand as a useful example of how so many of us invite catastrophe without ever intending to do so, or even being aware of doing so.

Absolutely. We feel the drunk driver is more responsible mostly because people "are supposed to know better" about drinking and driving. The irony of this article then is that it was intended to lessen social stigma against parents who do this, but by publicizing the occurrence in such a memorable, sledge hammer-y way, it should logically increase social stigma. This is like the old saying that ignorance of the law is no excuse. The more widely known the dangers of forgetting your child in the backseat, the less leniency will be extended to people have who do forget, since it will become something society will start expecting you to take pro-active steps to avoid.

As Brockles attitude suggests, people may well now start expecting parents to engage in simple precautionary habits like always checking a backseat before leaving a car, just as we expect people to look both ways before crossing a street.
posted by dgaicun at 1:15 PM on March 9, 2009


scrump: i remember a time when my sister was working all the crazy 100 hour weeks - with a day off about once every three or four weeks - that they force medical interns to do.

one day, driving home from the hospital, she took off from the lights straight into the cross-traffic. thought the light had gone green when in fact it had been red the whole time; out of some kind of inattentiveness or hallucination caused by sleep deprivation & stress.

the car was a wreck, but she was alright, thanks to the god of chaos, who had placed a buzzbomb on the cross street, instead of a truck or SUV.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:18 PM on March 9, 2009


"The easy thing in a case like this is to dump it on a jury, but that is not the right thing to do," Mobley says. A prosecutor's responsibility, he says, is to achieve justice, not to settle some sort of score.

Sadly I don't think enough prosecutors understand this.

Sometimes I am in the shower, and I can't for the life of me remember if I actually put shampoo and conditioner in my hair or not. Shit like this happens to me all the time.

This article is horrific. Holy fucking shit.
posted by chunking express at 1:43 PM on March 9, 2009


One of my favourite books about thinking is "Cognition in the Wild", which among other things provides a detailed account of navigation practise in US Navy ships. Obviously, it is a bad thing if a large warship runs aground, hits another ship, or otherwise is badly directed.

Anyway, ensuring this does not happen requires a large number of people drilled to respond to a rigid protocol. The protocol is carefully designed to catch and correct errors early. If it were a structure rather than a process you would call it over-engineered. Nonetheless, catastrophic errors occasionally occur.

If we looked after baby the way a large ship is navigated, we would have specialist teams checking in on a regular schedule.

A. Baby in back seat.
B. Confirm baby in back seat.
C. Temperature 25C.
D. Baby state sleeping.
E. Agent in nappy aisle.

A. Baby in back seat.
B. Confirm baby in back seat.
C. Temperature 25.5 C.
D. Baby state sleeping.
E. Approaching checkout.

A. Baby in back seat.
B. Confirm baby in back seat.
C. Temperature 25C.
D. Baby state sleeping.
E. Shopper ahead forgot cheque book.

A. Baby in back seat.
B. Confirm baby in back seat.
C. Temperature 26 C.
D. Baby state waking.
E. In checkout queue

A. Baby in back seat.
B. Confirm baby in back seat.
C. Temperature 26 C.
D. Baby state wake. RETURN TO BASE
A. RETURN TO BASE
B. RETURN TO BASE
C. Temperature 27 C.
E. Returning to base.
...

That would probably save a lot of babies. I think it should be the law.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:03 PM on March 9, 2009 [9 favorites]


Has anyone seen the latest commercial for Laughing Cow Cheese? A woman comes home from work on the bus after a stressful day and sits down on her couch to enjoy a glass of wine and some cheese, only to realize that she drove to work that day and left her car in the parking lot. We're all supposed to empathize, because that sort of thing happens to everyone every now and again. You forget that you've changed your routine slightly, and you go on autopilot. Whether the result is that you laugh about it while enjoying a piece of cheese or grieve for the rest of your life is dependent on the seriousness of what you forgot.

I have two possible routes to work in the morning, and I use each approximately half the time. If you paid me a million dollars, I could not say for certain which one I used this morning. My brain is simply not turned on at that time of day. I'd like to believe that if I had another living thing in my care, I'd think more, but I certainly can't guarantee it.
posted by decathecting at 2:09 PM on March 9, 2009


A. Baby in back seat.
B. Confirm baby in back seat.
C. Temperature 25C.
D. Baby state sleeping.
E. Agent in nappy aisle.


A friend of mine was a helicopter pilot in the Army. The first time I saw him after flight school I noticed a bright orange dot on his wristwatch. When I asked him about it he said it was a "safety dot"; whenever he looked at his watch it was there to remind him to to a brief check of the critical systems on his helicopter much as described.

The story in this post is one of the most heart-wrenching things I have ever read. It took me all day to read it, in small portions so I could keep my composure. The first thing I did when I got home from work was look in on my daughter and make sure she was OK as she takes her afternoon nap. We had a case like this last year at work. In this instance the child was alive enough to make it to the hospital but it was obvious they wouldn't survive more than a few hours. I have seen a lot of families facing tragedy and loss at work, but none so distraught as this family. The baby died that night and the next day the mother was on the front page of the paper "with the haunted, hunted, naked-eyed look these parents always have", to quote the article. She was charged with felony murder and the online comments to the newspaper story were unsympathetic, to say the least. For some reason, people single out these tragedies as particularly troubling, and perhaps they are. The child dies alone, scared, wondering where their loved ones are. But a moment's inattention or lapse in judgement can lead to these sorts of things in many ways. There have been enough children killed when they were backed over by SUVs that rear view cameras are becoming standard. This weekend a woman cooking dinner for her family started a house fire; the woman and her two oldest daughters died, while the youngest is in critical condition in our ICU. I regularly see children seriously injured or killed by farm equipment, swimming pool accidents, car crashes, and on and on. One case that will stay with me forever was a 10 year old boy at soccer practice; the coach needed to move the goal for some reason and got the team to help him drag it a few feet to where it needed to be. The someone stumbled and the goal was dropped on this adorable little boy's head; never had a chance. But no one sends their kid to soccer practice thinking they will never return. Of course, the reality is that distraction has always been a potentially fatal condition. If you were so busy gathering nuts and berries that you didn't notice the sabertooth tiger lurking nearby... We think modern life has gotten us away from that; it has , to some degree, but it has given us new threats that we never expected. Weingarten alludes to the idea, but Bruce Tognazzini wrote a whole column about reconsidering the idea that the back seat is the safest place for a child back in 2002. He also proposes a technological fix. That is fine, but that approach can only address one problem at a time. When I see these things I just want to scream "Slow the fuck down people! Do one thing at a time, especially if your kids are involved!" I have to remind myself, too.
posted by TedW at 3:20 PM on March 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


What we have is a combination of factors leading to an unintended consequence ( except for intentional omicide, of course, but that's an entirely different problem).

The factors seems to be the following:

- the abitacle of a car can become a dangerous environment, both for overheating or underheating for small childrens/pets because they can't open the door or the windows or get out of the car;
- there are also other reasons for not leaving a children unattended in the car, such as forgetting key in the starter block, possibility of hand brake being operated;
- therefore, we either make sure that they aren't left alone in the car, or that the environment becomes safer, or both;

We should also considere the following:
-a zero-risk society is an illusion, while it is possible to reduce risks and limit damages;
- technology isn't a substitute for adult supervision nor an excuse for careless parenting, but an instrument that can reduce some dangers;
- awareness and education about the risk may reduce the illusion of perfect security
that may be used as promote the sale of a techonology, as well as the illusion that any threat is imminent and catastrophic.

That said, some idea spring to mind:
- a car alarm with volumetric sensors or movement sensors could detect a baby in a car and trigger the alarm, thus attracting the parent attention;
- a "baby mode" parameter in the car software could just start a synthetized voice remembering not to leave the kid in car;

If my memory serves seat belts where initially opposed by some car manufactures because of their additional cost and limited demand, and possibily because of lack of evidence of their effectivity (over certain speeds). Waiting for companies to test some idea that isn't likely to increase their revenues according to their business model is too often wishful thinking, as there's a track record of corporate carelessness and lobbying against extra cost and risk. It may just happen that some pioneering company will adopt some extra feature to attract customers, but only when the an underlying unexpressed and sufficiently large demand is deemed to exists, such as more car security devices (ABS,ESP to name a couple).
posted by elpapacito at 3:49 PM on March 9, 2009


If you've ever seen this photograph in high detail, you can get an idea of what it looks like to lose a child. (I hope this is the closest you ever get to that.) The woman is turning to her husband in hopes that he will know what to do; the husband is helpless and at a total loss, his face is blank as he searches the waves. Their child is gone in a moment of inattention and they are both right at the point of realizing that fact.
posted by joaquim at 5:19 PM on March 9, 2009


I understand how this could happen. I feel for the parents it happened to, but this would never happen to me.

“The first time I saw him after flight school I noticed a bright orange dot on his wristwatch. When I asked him about it he said it was a "safety dot"; whenever he looked at his watch it was there to remind him to to a brief check of the critical systems on his helicopter much as described.”

This is why. (Although this relies on a visual cue which can be dicey)
Brains, memory, being careful, habit – don’t save lives. Ritual saves lives.
Having lived most of my life stressed out and sleep deprived and in mortal danger, you learn that your mind is very unreliable. I have some friends who are cops. We’ve gone to the range on occasion, they want to see my pistols, etc. I check three times in steps to make sure the weapon I’m handing them is not loaded. I do it the same time each time and do it for anything I pick up.
It’s critical to do it every time – especially when you know the weapon is not loaded or that you just did it. You do it purposefully. You do it repetatively. You do it unconsciously. Eventually it just becomes ingrained.

Same thing with my kids. I check the seat whether I put them in the car that day or not. I call when I leave the car wherever they are supposed to be.
Every time, same way, without fail. It can be a pain in the rear for people around me, but it’s kept me alive. You make it a ritual, not just a habit. Not like putting your keys in the same place. It’s more hallowed than a religious observance. It’s purposeful OCD. You make it so the ‘lizard brain’ (to borrow the term) can’t perform the task without going through those steps.

I have lost my keys. I’ve forgotten a large pile of lumber that I just paid for. I’m not real good at birthdays. Hell, I even do the thing (as above) and forget if I’ve just shampooed my hair.
But I have never had an accident with a firearm or any of my kids. I’ve got a ritual for them. Shampoo I tend to just wing it.

It’s just a matter of prioritization really. I don’t blame these folks for not doing it. They've just not been subject to extremes. I remember in high school they give you the ‘baby’ egg and you have to look after it. Like that's a big loss. Oh no an egg and an 'F'.
But I don’t think there’s much in society that actually prepares you for the very important things. Or how to prioritize stuff.
My mother in law had a very serious medical situation a bit ago and she was very close to death. I of course rushed to my wife's side and went to support her.
One of the people I work with asked why, when, y'know, we had work to do.
Seriously, people think that way.
I do some serious work, but unless I literally had someone's life in my hands at that moment, I'm going to support my family. (And hell, even then, if I'm doing, say, something on the order of brain surgery I'm going to ask someone else to close.).

In terms of is this a crime – yeah, I think it is. But it is one for which society cannot truly play any part. The courts can pass judgment, but not effect anything that matters in these cases. Like what, there's a deterrence factor?
Given it’s not purposeful homicide, and I think it must irrefutably not be in most of these cases - what the hell kind of punishment can you administer to someone that’s worse than them being responsible for losing their child?
There’s not going to be a damned thing a judge or jury can tell them.
If it were me and my child - 20 years in jail, death penalty, 1 year and a fine, a slap on the wrist, I can’t imagine caring one way or the other.
If anything I can see sentencing them to counseling. If the parent in question wants to live, there’s no reason why we should lose two lives over – define it however you will legally – this kind of tragedy.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:32 PM on March 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


(And to be clear - I'm protected from this specific kind of thing by ritual, not from the other accidents and such parents and kids and families are prone to. I keep the bleach and poisons locked up and such, but we're only human)
posted by Smedleyman at 5:34 PM on March 9, 2009


Getting into the habit of double checking your own routine is also a habit. It's the habit that I find most useful in my daily and working lives.

Yeah, I do that too. Example: I set up the coffeemaker at night so my wife can just push the button when she staggers out of bed in the morning and have fresh coffee without having to think about it and practice complicated muscle coordination. I care a lot about doing this, and I make sure to remind myself to check the coffeemaker before I go to bed, even if I'm sure I remember doing it. And yet, a couple of times I've forgotten. End result, she has to make her own coffee, big deal. But the same thing could happen with anything that one wants to be sure of doing. Anything.

This seems to be shading into the following piece of advice: Take no precautions because they only give you a false sense of security. That can't be right

Of course not, and it's not what I'm saying. In fact, I said:

obviously habits chosen to reduce the risk of such things happening are a good thing

But it's not good 1) to believe they eliminate risk, or 2) to use that erroneous belief to smugly criticize the people to whom this happens. I have no respect for anyone who could read this story and still think such parents should be prosecuted.
posted by languagehat at 5:36 PM on March 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


That really awful comment quoted from the blog commenter, about how "she should have kept her legs closed"? That was on my blog, one year ago. I responded by telling the anonymous commenter that he's the worst person in the world and called the comment "one of the nastiest, most asinine things I’ve ever read in my life,"but somehow those responses seem insufficient now. In fifteen years of running online communities, that's the worst thing that I've ever seen somebody write on one of my sites. I'm ashamed to see it end up in the Washington Post, where the target of the comment has now read it.
posted by waldo at 5:40 PM on March 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


But it's not good 1) to believe they eliminate risk, or 2) to use that erroneous belief to smugly criticize the people to whom this happens.

Yet you chose to let both barrels off at me despite my not having made either of those points? Good job.

As long as you feel better.
posted by Brockles at 5:54 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


(Lemme just reiterate the big difference I mean between ingrained ritual and ‘habit’ here.)
posted by Smedleyman at 5:57 PM on March 9, 2009


(It didn't seem to make any difference when I tried to make the same distinction, though. We'll see if you have better luck...)
posted by Brockles at 5:59 PM on March 9, 2009


I think this is horrible. I read the posted article and the comments and the meta several times and I am trying to understand, but I really can't believe the empathy these parents are getting. Talking about it all being about faulty brain mechanics? Unbelievable. It's really so hard to check your car for a sleeping baby before going about your day? It's not such a big space. Put your purse next to the baby if your purse is easier to remember and keep track of than your child.

School buses have signs in them saying, "Checked for sleeping children" so that children don't get left on buses. Presumably this was because parents complained about drivers forgetting sleeping children. I know it has happened. If this level of care is required for school bus drivers, why not for parents?

Really, I tried to understand but this is unbelievable. If people feel sorry for the parents, what about the poor child who fell asleep trusting their parents to see them to their next destination safely, only to wake up trapped and dying slowly in the heat. Unbelievable.
posted by sweetkid at 6:26 PM on March 9, 2009


I feel for the parents it happened to, but this would never happen to me.

I get what you are saying; I just think that this kind overconfidence is as dangerous as not setting up those routines in the first place.
posted by troybob at 6:31 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


It’s purposeful OCD.

I'm not trying to be harsh in any way, but please try to stop using the term OCD in this way? I actually have this disorder, and being vigilant is in no way OCD. Nor can you purposefully will yourself into a mental disorder, or would want to. It's come up a lot in this thread...
posted by agregoli at 6:33 PM on March 9, 2009


but this would never happen to me.

I think you need to be very careful saying this. Yes, you have a routine that includes checking your car seats. You do it by rote. It's a ritual.

The whole point of the science behind this, however, is that things can happen that break the routine. Lack of sleep can cause you to have a false memory of checking the seat when you didn't.

Plus, your ritual doesn't account for the day you get such horrifying news by phone in your car that your mind blanks of everything else except getting to a hospital or emergency site, or the day your kid learns to unclip the car seat buckles and (God forbid) "hides" in the foot well. Seat empty? Indeed.

All I am saying that one day - once - you will forget to check the seat and you won't even know it. It will be the furthest thing from your mind, or something your mind is convinced by routine that you did. I am in no way saying a tragedy will arise from this, but nobody is perfect every single time.

How many parents with kids who have had both everyday and tragic accidents have said "I always... but this once I... just for a second..."? Error is the human condition.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:47 PM on March 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


Rituals are good, and can help prevent all manner of unfortunate incidents (as is testified to be the fact that, for example, I haven't locked myself out of my house in many years, thanks to my obsessive key-jangling). But the very fact of imposing rituals on yourself can leave you more open to lapses of memory or concentration when the unexpected happens; the things you don't have rituals for. Yes, there's a difference between ingrained ritual and habit; but take a step back, and you can see that the use of ritual, if not the rituals themselves, is habitual behaviour. And is equally vulnerable to to the blindspots that the unusual or unexpected creates.

The various people who've written variants here of "it really, really could never happen to me" - and described the methods they use that convinces them of that fact - do not appear to be living their lives in a constant state of jumpy paranoia. Rather, they seem to be confident in the smooth operating of the safety nets they've constructed for their brain. Which is all well and good, because those safety nets are damned useful - but the very confidence you have in them is the same thing that lets the brain run on auto-pilot, just a little bit, when you're pretty certain that the unexpected isn't happening. Which is how these tragedies, or ones very like them, can happen.

I would add my extreme scepticism that anybody who claims to "always do thing X" as part of their daily lives would in fact pass a test for that, if they were followed around and observed for any length of time. I'm sure you'd get 99% of the time. But I really doubt that you'd manage 100%; it's simply that you don't notice the lapses because, well, you weren't thinking about it. But I'm not sure that's a particularly fruitful line of discussion, because the obvious response is "well, I would, actually." Which would get the response of "I doubt that." And so on.
posted by flashboy at 7:32 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


“I'm not trying to be harsh in any way, but please try to stop using the term OCD in this way?”

Fair enough. Just trying to use the metaphor being tossed around. I see your point.

“The whole point of the science behind this, however, is that things can happen that break the routine. Lack of sleep can cause you to have a false memory of checking the seat when you didn't.”

No, actually, having a false memory is irrelevant. So is your mental state. I’m talking about an ingrained behavior. Again, as I’ve said, a lot of folks don’t have experience with this because they’ve never had the need for it. I have gone a solid week without sleep and developed methods of doing things in practically somnambulant states. I’ve been wounded suffering from blood loss and been able to perform the same task the same way as though I was as fresh as a daisy (other tasks, not so much obviously).

What you’re saying about routine is correct. What I’m saying, and I take agregoli’s point on OCD on this, is that I cannot do certain things any other way once it’s become ritual. And not out of a disorder, but rather out of neurofeedback of the nondeclarative memory. Similar to muscle memory in that respect but over a more complex set of actions, it’s like asking Randy Johnson to completely change how he pitches.
The difference between routine and ritual being that ritual is not an easy thing to instill.
Let me put it another way, if humans didn’t have this faculty, repetitive strain injuries wouldn’t exist, fighters couldn’t throw swift combinations, people couldn’t play piano.
The brain is a machine, yes. And like any machine it can fail. But there’s a difference when it comes to complexity – the more complex, the more likely something can fail. This is a bit more like a lever. Very very simple machine. Its like breathing. Same deal, it’s not something you forget.

Now, I’m not faulting anyone for not doing it. I’m simply saying it can be done. And furthermore I’m saying parenting is an undervalued skill set (in that this isn’t taught, allowed for, etc.) There should be other barriers to prevent this from happening. One method is training and integration of ritual. Unfortunately I don’t think many parents have the same duties such that they can train themselves to ritualize certain things (I have that luxury in this specific instance). And I think given what we’re seeing there’s not a lot of focus on fixing the problem. Certainly there are technological cures. But they’re not 100% either.
I think giving people time for parenting, a more communal parenting environment, plenty of other more broad supports that don’t have a single point of focus (the parent) could be in place to solve this to 100% not happening.
In my case I can say it will never happen to me, I cannot say it will never happen around me. I can ritualize all I want if I have a heart attack or stroke or a bolt of lightning hits me, my kid is stuck in my car no matter what.

So with the most conscientious parent – all those points you make have been made, but I'm saying even with a 100% success rate on the part of the parent – you still have the potential for a critical failure because we’re relying only on one person rather than more broad solutions. We're not, in essence, playing the odds. And actuaries would say that's all these kinds of accidents are.

But I think that should all be obvious. As is this going to court tripe. Hard to believe there aren’t allowances for special cases such as this. Court isn’t going to do much per se, without some compassion on the part of the prosecutors. I’d rather not rely on that. I’d rather have a more straightforward mechanical process to help parents through this – especially if they have other kids. Error is indeed the human condition, that's why other humans are necessary to mitigate it. Hell, I am superman. But that just isn't enough either. And I think we agree on the forgiveness for it. But individuals are easy to forgive and I don't give much thought to that.

What society focuses on, how people run their much larger and broad conceptual machines (justice, transportation, legislation) - there's so much support there that that requires some forethought.
So I can't much forgive that we waste time prosecuting this instead of finding more workable solutions to what (I think we agree) is not a moral failing.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:40 PM on March 9, 2009


“I'm sure you'd get 99% of the time. But I really doubt that you'd manage 100%”

You breathe 100% of the time do ya? I do not hand someone a weapon without going through a ritual. I can’t. Literally – cannot do it any other way. To do it another way would take conscious effort on the order of walking in a completely different fashion. Plus I maintain a healthy fear of doing it otherwise. On top of that there’s a conscious will to do it that way. So I’d first have to want to. Same deal as though you started side stepping and karaoke stepping. You have to think about it if you want to do it any other way.
What, you think I sit there and calculate every punch I throw? Someone throws an overhand right at me, I sit and think “Ok, now do I want to shoulder throw, step in an elbow, ankle sweep – just so many options…” I’d have to consciously think about letting someone hit me to just stand there and let them hit me.
Why train if reaction can’t be ingrained?

Now as to the efficacy of applying this to someone’s daily routine – no, it wouldn’t be easy. And for the reasons I mentioned. And practical is a whole other thing. Works for me. Maybe not for other folks. And certainly not as something to be expected from people on a broad basis.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:55 PM on March 9, 2009


You breathe 100% of the time do ya?

Er, no. Sleep apnea, y'know.

I get the impression there are people who are protesting against developing the habit of checking the back seat. That seems so stupid, though, that I must surely have the wrong impression.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:08 PM on March 9, 2009


The difference between routine and ritual being that ritual is not an easy thing to instill.

Indeed. And humans, being humans, there are those where ritual is more difficult to instill in than in others. For some, maybe impossible. They might even see that a need for the ritual is there, but for whatever reason, just can't get it drilled into their lizard brains. What about them?

Having lived most of my life stressed out and sleep deprived and in mortal danger, you learn that your mind is very unreliable.

Sure, and how many people get to experience that, in order to realize it? It's not like a person is going to understand if you just tell them. There may actually be something to the whole coming-of-age/initiation ceremonies that some of the 'less civilized' (you know, non-european) peoples practice.

(on preview i see that you do realize it isn't going to work for every one)
posted by ArgentCorvid at 8:19 PM on March 9, 2009


“I get the impression there are people who are protesting against developing the habit of checking the back seat. That seems so stupid, though, that I must surely have the wrong impression.”

I think they’re arguing against the assignation of blame for a certain kind of mental error. About which I agree. If one habitually checks the back seat, one can still be distracted.
My argument is a matter of perspective and training. One can train oneself to react certain ways without fail. This takes time and effort and, importantly, knowledge. And it’s a ‘straw’ solution vs. an ‘oar’ solution. But it’s doable. And not of the order of the ‘where are my keys’ set of habits.

Sorry about the apnea. You’re still alive apparently, so your system must have ‘remembered’ in time. Same order of reflexive type mechanism.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:25 PM on March 9, 2009


I'll protest against checking the back seat every time. I do not want to have a brain that has cataloged every single possible horrible way that my children could die. I'll take on the obvious ones, no gun in the house, buckled at all times and caregivers I trust. Maybe the universe is preparing a bullet to send my way, but I'm too busy playing with my kids and singing them lullabies to hear it coming.
posted by saffry at 8:29 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


And I also just don't buy the "forgot" thing.

That's funny, because in the article it explains very, very clearly how someone might forget one of their children in the car. Or did you, um, forget that?

Reading this article scared the crap out of me, as someone who is forgetful all the time and who is probably going to be a father eventually. If a product like this comes out I will absolutely purchase it. I need a reminder for everything already, and I'm not too proud to buy something that could save the life of my son or daughter.

Personally, I feel like negligence has to be conscious. You know, like purposefully feeding kids your wacko diet and making them malnurished, leaving the kids at home to go partying at bars, etc. Having a switch not go off in your brain isn't negligence, its...well, that's the point of the article, isn't it. Accident doesn't seem like a strong enough word, but what else do you call it?

Look, there are people who leave their kids in the car on purpose. Save your disbelief for these parents, and recognize that the brain is not something that always functions at 100% all the time. As the article itself says, we would like to think these people are negligent because then that logically leads to the conclusion that this cannot happen to us. But it can. Which is why rather than expecting that I will simply "remember" my kids, I will most certainly set up reminder systems: maybe something like an hourly "Where is the kid?" reminder and if I'm not 100% sure then I go and check.

I'll tell you one system that will not work: the "I'm better than those guys" system.

I mean, put this in perspective: this happened to what, 20-30 parents, out of the millions of parents out there? Statistically, it seems like this is almost inevitable, and although individual decision plays a part, it almost seems like it's more useful to think of this in terms of something like hard drives: let's say one in 200,000 of them will fail and have a memory fault at some point in time. Same thing with humans. 1 in every 200,000 parents will, one day, have a memory fault in their brain and forget their kids are there. If it didn't happen to that individual, it would have happened to another one of the 200,000.

So maybe it'd be better to plan for it to be a possibility, instead of questioning another person's behavior.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:50 PM on March 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


Before dismissing the gun analogy as less than ideal, consider:

They both have moving parts!
They both are manufactured worldwide!
They both are made out of metal!
They both can be purchased in designer colors that match your personal tastes and preferences!
They both contain parts which can be melted and turned into curious sculptures!
I have never consumed either of them!

I could go on all day. Your analogy is retarded, because the point is neither the means nor the ends, but the intent.

Snakes are not modern mechanical inventions. They are very rarely used to commit murders or suicides outside of a few gory mystery novels, they require no license, and although snakes are highly capable of accidentally killing somone, they are not a source of common accidental deaths. But if I gave my kid a copperhead to play with that I was sure had been defanged, that would be an identical situation to the gun. In fact, if this article were about snake handlers that had their children play with snakes that they believed to be non-poisonous which in fact were not, then the unloaded gun would have been a truly genious analogy.

But it's not, because what happened here wasn't even neglect. It was a memory problem exacerbated by a culture of excessive stressors, too much working, and technologies that offer up constant distractions. And for many people, unfortunately, cutting yourself off from these stressors and technologies is a luxury they don't have.

Forgetfulness with a gun is unlikely because handling a gun is highly, highly unlikely to be part of someone's routine and they are highly, highly unlikely to operate a gun in the same area as a young child who is not even old enough to find their way out of a car. But if you want to backpedal and so, no wait, you meant people accidentally leaving guns laying around they believed to be unloaded, then, fine. Your analogy merely sucks, rather than being completely retarded.

For all those who think these parents should be harshly punished because there are individuals out there who knowingly leave their children in the car: do you think if a parent accidentally poisons their child, or their child breaks into a cabinet and downs a bottle of pills, that the parent should be sent to jail, since there are people out there who knowingly poison other people?

A person drinks alcohol, gets in a car, hits a pedestrian and injures them. That's a crime. Someone gets into a car, is driving, their mind wanders temporarily due to some stressful situation and they hit a pedestrian and injure them. That's a tragic accident (and obviously they should be held liable for damages and rehabilitation). A mother leaves her kids in the car to go partying in a bar. That is gross neglect. A mother leaves her kids in the car to keep a job that will keep her children from starving. That's a form of neglect, but certainly understandable and perhaps should be treated less harshly (and certainly we should be working on preventative measures, such as emergency temporary childcare or anything else that keeps people from resorting to drastic measures). A mother leaves her child in her car because her memory had a sudden blip and she forgot her child was in the back seat? Horrible, heartbreaking tragedy. In short: prosecute the first mother harshly, get the second mother in touch with social services and perhaps into some kind of training program, and get the third mother therapy and reassurance and forgiveness, since odds are good she'll never be able to forgive herself.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:18 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'll take on the obvious ones, no gun in the house,

You meant no swimming pools, right?

It looks like backseat car deaths are relatively rare. But so are tons of other ones that we seem to fear greatly. I'm no fan of handguns but your kids are far more likely to die from mundane things like household cleaners or the 2-3 inches of water you left in the bathtub. You can't freak out about every way your kids could die, but you should be aware of them and behave accordingly. I'm absolutely going to check the back of my car and I'm certainly going to be peeking into the back seats of cars in the future to make sure there isn't some kid trapped back there. I would cheerfully and happily go to prison for a year if someone saw that I had accidentally left one of my kids in the back seat and I knew that the discover had saved my child's life. I'm sure any one of these parents would love to have their kids back as well as the absolution of a few months of prison to punish them for simple neglect (i.e. not for killing their child).
posted by Deathalicious at 9:28 PM on March 9, 2009


The article mentions that the number of incidents is increasing year by by year, and it happened three times in one day last year. And that it is occurring because more and more people are putting child seats in the back seat rather than the front seat, which used to be standard.

Why? Because care safety "experts" tell everyone it is safer because children can be injured by the air bags.


That's my greatest fear about this article: that people reading it will decide that it's safer to put their child in the front seat so they don't forget them, leading to a much higher incident of deaths. The fact that 20-30 children die this way each year is a tragedy, but I have a feeling the number of deaths would be much higher if children were in the front seat. In 1996, when not every car had a passenger-side airbag, around 35 children were killed by the airbags. If people had not responded at all to this, for sure the number would have gone up. As it was, people took the message of moving kids to the back seat, and auto manufacturers made airbags with less force. I'm still fairly confident that the front seat isn't where you want babies and toddlers, though.

Can I just make one quick plug here, though? Nannies. My best friend in Philly is a nanny and goes directly to people's houses saving them from having to take the child to a childcare facility. Nannies are often willing to do nanny-shares, which means that they watch over your child and another child at the same time, in the same house, for a little less per child. And they're not going to leave the kid in the car because they're focusing on work, because their work is the child. Really, ask around, you'd be amazed how reasonably priced nannies can be in comparison to childcare.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:38 PM on March 9, 2009


mirepoix wrote*:Okay, you parents just keep on making your excuses.

Hey, you wanna know something interesting? This whole time on MetaFilter, I have hardly ever used the F-word. I've done this consciously; usually I swear like a sailor but a quick search shows that I've own thrown the F-bomb 5 times in the past 4 years or so: one was in the URL for a now broken link, one was in the name of a song (so it hardly counts), and one was in quote of someone else's comment. So I've realy only ever used it rhetorically twice, and that was in 2007.

So, let me dust it off a bit....

Fuck you, mirepoix. Did you read the article at all? These were not spaced out parents who needed ADHD medicine. The only way to think of it is that this was a numbers game. It was just going to happen to 20 people that year, and these were the poor unfortunate souls who got pulled out of the bag.

The entire point of the article was that these things happened because the human brain is not a 100% reliable machine. Memory breaks down. Signals get crossed. Memory markers get placed for the wrong things. You don't have a car and you're not having children. Great. Have you ever driven?

Driving requires a certain kind of thinking. You turn off one set of brain functions and introduce another. For better or worse, in most areas of the United States you cannot get around without a car. This becomes even more true when you have children. I have totally had my brain shut off while driving, I've begun automatically driving to work when my grandma was in the back seat waiting to be driven home. Fortunately, unlike a child she was able to say, "Hey! You're supposed to turn left up here!" If young children were able to say, "Hey, you forgot to turn off for the daycare!" then the problem would be solved, but they're not, so tragically we just have to accept that this memory thing will happen and you just have to be willing to employ tools to help you.

Oh, and if you "keep your eyes on the children at all times"? If you are in a car, you will smash into the car in front of you when the light turns red, killing yourself and the kids.

If you want to argue that nobody should have kids or something, maybe because the population is too high or something, fine. Otherwise, shut the hell up.

Don't have kids, was a kid, love kids, hate sanctimonious buttmunches.

*Flagged it, tried to move on, couldn't.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:09 PM on March 9, 2009 [7 favorites]


hilzoy's piece at Obsidian Wings about some of the hateful comments people have made online resonated with me.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:55 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


do you think if a parent accidentally poisons their child, or their child breaks into a cabinet and downs a bottle of pills, that the parent should be sent to jail, since there are people out there who knowingly poison other people?

posted by Deathalicious at 4:18 PM on March 10 [+] [!]

posted by UbuRoivas at 11:08 PM on March 9, 2009


The increased incidence over the past few years might also be due to the fact that there are a lot more hot days now than in past years. I wonder if that Prius solar powered parked ventilation system could be an reasonably-priced aftermarket item?

As to eliminating the accidentally forgetting something important due to ritual? I have a ritual about how to pay for things. I always use the same debit card, when I pay I swipe the card and immediately return it to my wallet, return my wallet to my pocket and then three steps away from the cash register I double-check I have the wallet and the card is inside. I've been doing this almost every time I have made a purchase for the past twenty years. I say almost because I know, on a least three occasions in the same month, while shopping in the same grocery shop I have visited three times a week for the past eight years, I lost my card between paying for the groceries and checking my wallet. Each time I was *positive* I had returned my card to my wallet but it wasn't there (nor was it anywhere else and none of the three cards ever turned up). What happened? I haven't the faintest (although I have a vision of freeze-frame throwing the card in the air a la Mary Tyler Moore and her hat - so exuberant in successfully purchasing milk again, YES!). I knew at the time exactly why though - I had recently gave birth to my third child and I had baby brain. Thank goodness it was something replaceable. My heart goes out to the parents that have made a mistake that will haunt them the rest of their lives.
posted by saucysault at 5:02 AM on March 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


You breathe 100% of the time do ya?

Isn't that the point? You breathe with 100% reliability - until you don't. You die of SIDs at three months, or of an asthma attack at 8, or from anaphylaxis at 40.

If you want to make absolutist statements about you will never fail to check your rear seats, go right ahead. I will maintain that people are only capable of doing things with 100% reliability up until the moment when they don't.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:52 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I am a parent of two little ones and several days on this story is still haunting me. I'd like to think that we're immune, and the arrangement of our lives is such that this particular hazard is vanishingly unlikely, but still, ohmygod... imagining those babies, crying alone in the backseat as they slowly roast to death. It breaks my heart. That is all.
posted by libraryhead at 7:00 AM on March 10, 2009


Every parent believes this is something they could never do, and given that this happens about 30 times a year in a country with over 20 million children under five, it is almost a one in a million event. Even the worst parents will probably not leave their child in a car.

Routines are fine but they are not foolproof and they will never become an autonomic reflex like breathing. Ever since I became a licensed driver 30 years ago I have worn seatbelts. I don't turn on the ignition until I am buckled in and it has become so ingrained that I buckle up out of habit even if I am just moving the car out of the garage. When my daughter was born I quickly developed the same habit with her. But a couple of years ago I was loading a bunch of stuff from the store after putting her in her seat, and between putting up the cart, watching for other cars, and so on, I got in the car, buckled myself up, and started to drive off, until my daughter loudly reminded me "Daddy, you need to buckle my seat belt!" Had she been a few months younger she would not have been talking and I could easily have been one of those horrible parents who drive around without properly restraining their children. I was too embarrassed to tell my wife, who is even more protective than I am. But while discussing this story yesterday I came clean and instead of chastising me, she told me she had done almost the exact same thing, only while leaving our house. So momentary lapses happen to everyone, but fortunately they usually don't have tragic results. I agree with those who think some of the vitriolic responses to these cases (and if you want to see pure, unadulterated nastiness, just go to the comments section of any of these stories in the news) are from people who are trying to deny that it could happen to them. I am glad to see that the discussion here is more civil, even from those who feel the parents were willfully negligent.
posted by TedW at 7:04 AM on March 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


I wanted to note here that I'd seen various claims (I think in the article as well as in discussion here and elsewhere) that this is a new phenomenon.

It's not. Before we had cars, we still had parents lose track of their children. Children have died of exposure throughout history as far as we know. Children have been left in fields, children left out to get savaged by wild animals (or not so wild).

There's even heartbreaking historical record of a father who put his child in the hay wagon he was taking to market. The child fell asleep, the father forgot the child, the wagon sold, and the child was killed with a pitchfork.

Also, there is/was a phenomenon called "overlayment" which referred to when nursing mothers or nursemaids would fall asleep and smother the children they were breastfeeding. Usually cases where overlayment was suspected were thrown out immediately, with the assumption that the parent or guardian was simply too exhausted to wake due to the child's struggles.

It seems like it would be pretty logical to assume that children have occasionally, tragically, been neglected in ways similar to these (but without cars, without enclosures that can lock them in) since we started being parents and having children (i.e. a long time).

How do we know about these more recent cases? Those parents were often tried as well for neglect or murder. They were usually acquitted. Though often the trials were carried out because infanticide was a more frequent practice so there were those questions.
posted by kalessin at 7:49 AM on March 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


For me, this was one of the most chilling parts of the article:
On the day Balfour forgot Bryce in the car, she had been up much of the night, first babysitting for a friend who had to take her dog to an emergency vet clinic, then caring for Bryce, who was cranky with a cold. Because the baby was also tired, he uncharacteristically dozed in the car, so he made no noise. Because Balfour was planning to bring Bryce's usual car seat to the fire station to be professionally installed, Bryce was positioned in a different car seat that day, not behind the passenger but behind the driver, and was thus not visible in the rear-view mirror. Because the family's second car was on loan to a relative, Balfour drove her husband to work that day, meaning the diaper bag was in the back, not on the passenger seat, as usual, where she could see it. Because of a phone conversation with a young relative in trouble, and another with her boss about a crisis at work, Balfour spent most of the trip on her cell, stressed, solving other people's problems. Because the babysitter had a new phone, it didn't yet contain Balfour's office phone number, only her cell number, meaning that when the sitter phoned to wonder why Balfour hadn't dropped Bryce off that morning, it rang unheard in Balfour's pocketbook.

The holes, all of them, aligned.
See, you can have all the fail-safes in the world, you can have all the routines in the world, and yet sometimes you are just plainly fucked by circumstance, plain and simple, with the most horrific and unimaginable consequence.
posted by shiu mai baby at 8:05 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you want to make absolutist statements about you will never fail to check your rear seats, go right ahead. I will maintain that people are only capable of doing things with 100% reliability up until the moment when they don't.”

Mans ability to walk on the moon is not contingent on your (mis)understanding of physics. It works whether you think it does or not.
I’m not a neurosurgeon or brain specialist but I’ve got a great deal of experience in training reflexive actions in stress situations. You’re arguing that a hinge won’t bend along it’s axis every time. I’m saying it’s a purely mechanical system which can only bend along one plane. Obviously if the hinge breaks it’s not going to work that way. If I get out of my car and a meteor hits me just before I check to see if my kid is in the back seat that’s going to break my 100% reliability record as well. But it’s not going to be through an internal systemic fault through lack of higher brain thinking – e.g. what you do by habit or contentiousness. People who have lost chunks of their brain can still be trained in reflexive memory. It’s that much of a deep brain action.
So it’s not routine like buckling your seat belt or ‘always’ doing something. If I got shot in the head and had a big hole in my brain I’d STILL be able to do the tasks I’ve ritualized.
I think I’ve fully allowed for other circumstances, complexities and the need for social supports to make a pretty solid stand on this fairly narrow in scope point.
Funny how people are willing to argue that if someone doesn’t have experience as a parent that it invalidates some of their authority on the subject. And yet my years of training and experience in some of the harshest conditions can be equated to someone forgetting their keys. Hey, I don’t know what it’s like to get shot and start to bleed out or have something blow up on me and be full of shrapnel, concussed and in a bloody daze - load, acquire a target, return fire, reload and do it over and over, but y’know, I forgot my keys once – same thing.

But again, I've made allowances for circumstance. Indeed, I think it's a stronger argument to say that even when one can do something perfectly reliably, it's still not enough and there needs to be broader support and teamwork. It's why there are teams and squads instead of Rambo. If I am fucked by circumstance - there is someone else there who can help me out. But feel free to keep focusing on the excuses instead of the problem.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:54 AM on March 10, 2009


You need to just ignore people saying you are talking out of your ass. You're just going to jinx yourself.
posted by chunking express at 12:14 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


And since this happens 25 times a year in the US, chances are Smedleyman's method is 100% effective. And some other dudes "I just hope they aren't in the car" method will also work 100% of the time.
posted by chunking express at 12:27 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


smedleyman - "I feel for the parents it happened to, but this would never happen to me.

...

I cannot do certain things any other way once it’s become ritual. And not out of a disorder, but rather out of neurofeedback of the nondeclarative memory. Similar to muscle memory in that respect but over a more complex set of actions, it’s like asking Randy Johnson to completely change how he pitches.
The difference between routine and ritual being that ritual is not an easy thing to instill.
Let me put it another way, if humans didn’t have this faculty, repetitive strain injuries wouldn’t exist, fighters couldn’t throw swift combinations, people couldn’t play piano.

...

What, you think I sit there and calculate every punch I throw? Someone throws an overhand right at me, I sit and think “Ok, now do I want to shoulder throw, step in an elbow, ankle sweep – just so many options…” I’d have to consciously think about letting someone hit me to just stand there and let them hit me.
Why train if reaction can’t be ingrained?
"

I actually agree with most of what you're saying in your posts above. I suspect your ingrained rituals really do improve your percentages in avoiding this kind of tragedy. As a martial artist myself, I understand the analogy you're making with trained muscle skills.

Still ...

Even expert pianists occasionally hit the wrong note.

Even accomplished boxers occasionally get tired and sloppy and eat an overhand right as a result.

Expert pianists and boxers have had years of practice, which includes the experience of screwing up and getting immediate feedback in the form of a bad note or a punch to the face. That immediate feedback is an important part of learning to minimize those mistakes in the future. Most parents, even careless ones, will never have the experience of leaving their infant to be baked in a car. In most cases, there will never be a way to distinguish between the (hypothetical) parent who checks the backseat ever time and the (more likely) parent who thinks he checks the backseat every time.

Physical training and ingrained safety rituals are important and they're valuable and they can save lives. They don't guarantee 100% safety, though. Nothing does.
posted by tdismukes at 12:44 PM on March 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


“They don't guarantee 100% safety, though. Nothing does.”
I think I’ve made that point myself. What’s in contention is how the thing will fail. Certainly people hit the wrong notes or take a hit, but that’s a failure in degree, not in kind.
I’m simply saying I can say with 100% assurance I will never forget my kid in the back seat of the car. I’m not saying there are no circumstances under which my child will never come to harm through some failure on my part. I could, for example, perform the ritual, check the back seat, and have someone come and interrupt me just after that. Any number of things could occur that are beyond my control to cause a failure. I’m just one part of a continuum of action here. And it’s precisely the point that, even though I won’t fail to perform a specific set of actions, there are any number of circumstances that can invalidate the efficacy of those actions. As you say – I could take a hit even though I attempt to slip it perfectly. I still performed the act, but I got hit. That’s a failure, but not of the kind I’m talking about.
In any event that’s a very small scope argument. And one which I don’t think is the crucial point here.
I mean – the beef here (some parts of this thread and the other) is that parents should or should not be held accountable by law for something which they may or may not do perfectly.
I’m simply saying I can do one particular thing perfectly, but I maintain that while parents can be held accountable by law – it’s ridiculous to hold them responsible because: A. there are many variables well beyond just this particular thing so whether one does it perfectly or not isn’t much of an issue and B. addressing this with only the justice system is another failure to support parents and a failure to further mitigate risk.
Lot of folks are hung up on whether it one small set of actions can be done perfectly or not.
I don’t think the fact that someone fails to perform something well mitigates their responsibility. As someone brought up elsewhere – if a nanny accidentally leaves a kid in a car to die, the parents would likely want to prosecute them.
So would the same “well it can’t be done 100%” argument hold for them? I don’t think it does.
But I do think the lack of support argument holds. If some agency sends a nanny out with zero training and there’s a tragic end, I’m not going to hold the nanny as accountable as I would hold their agency.
Similarly – parents are sleep deprived, they have to conform to a given set of social demands which undercut how well they parent – I lay the blame more at the feet of society and what we value and demand more than I lay it at the feet of the parent – who, even if they do one single act of childcare perfectly (as I do) still have to contend with a vast array of potential circumstances beyond their control which can give rise to errors in judement.
So, 100%, 99.9%, 95%, whatever – doesn’t much matter within a certain degree of fitness to parent. It’s a matter of the lack of broad support, not how well one person does one thing.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:34 PM on March 10, 2009


I'd be curious to know the gender breakdown of parents who do this. I'd also be interested to know if there's a gender difference in prosecution.

I'm thankful that my son rode in the front seat in his carseat 21 years ago (no airbags; no recommendation to ride in the back seat at that time). Later, as recommendations changed and he rode in the back, I missed the easiness of our chatter. Do I love him less now, at 21, when he rides in the passenger seat? It's still safer in the middle of the back seat.

For me, this is a story about an extraordinary tragedy that happened to a bunch of children and parents. It's hard to assign blame. Modern life is far too complicated and most of us juggle far too many things.
posted by theora55 at 3:30 PM on March 10, 2009


Reading the MeTa thread, it occurs to me that it's very typical to want to legislate, or install a device to prevent a tragedy, but there's very little parenting training. After reading that article, I darn near went to the parking garage and checked my backseat, and my kid is 21. Parents are crazy-busy and overwhelmed, but surely things like teaching parents some of the avoidable tragedies would help.
posted by theora55 at 3:42 PM on March 10, 2009


I’m not a neurosurgeon or brain specialist...

Neither am I but I work with them almost every day, and as someone who shuts down and restarts brains as part of my job, the subject of how they work is of more than casual interest to me.

You’re arguing that a hinge won’t bend along it’s axis every time. I’m saying it’s a purely mechanical system which can only bend along one plane.

A brain is not a hinge. Even the commonly used analogy of a brain being like a computer is strained. The human brain (and nervous system of which it is a part) has both analog and digital components, has functions that are highly localized, and has functions that are highly distributed; sometimes both. Your use of the word "reflex" indicates a rather superficial understanding of the concept. For example, the oft-cited knee-jerk is a spinal reflex and does not involve the brain at all. Actual reflexes are hard-wired into our nervous system and cannot be learned, although they do change as our nervous system continues to mature after we are born.

I’m simply saying I can say with 100% assurance I will never forget my kid in the back seat of the car.

Considering we are talking about something that happens to roughly one in a million kids, you could say that no matter what you do and have a 99.9999% chance of being correct. I go to the beach and swim in the ocean and am 100% sure I won't be killed by a stingray; Steve Irwin probably would have said the same thing (as would most of the people who watched him on TV). I would also bet that every single one of the parents in the linked article would have said they would never forget their child in a car up until the very moment it happened to them. I don't know if the belief that you are immune to mistakes with horrific consequences falls under the heading of hubris, complacency, or something else, but I can assure you that you are not immune. I agree with much of what you say, and appreciate that you are more diplomatic than some people in the accompanying MeTa thread are, but the fact remains that people, including you and me, are imperfect. The first line of defense against our human fallibility is to admit that it exists.
posted by TedW at 7:07 PM on March 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


"I don't know if the belief that you are immune to mistakes with horrific consequences falls under the heading of hubris, complacency, or something else, but I can assure you that you are not immune."
I think it's been precisely my point that I'm not immune to mistakes with horrific consequences despite performing a certain task with maximal efficiency.
If you went to the beach and were on guard against stingrays, had stingray repellent, had on an anti-stingray suit, and had other protections to such a degree that you could say you would not be killed by a stingray, this does not mean that in a stingray related incident, you wouldn't drown.

I can say with 100% assurance that I will always react to defend against an incoming blow. I cannot say I will with 100% assurance deflect it. As I've said, I have, and I have trained people to - operate on automatic without what would normally be considered 'thinking.' They will be able to perform a somewhat sophisticated series of actions no matter what the distraction, they would be able to, say, return fire. You're equating automatically returning fire with hitting the target with precision. Not what I'm claiming.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:15 AM on March 11, 2009


Smedleyman, we get it. It's nice that you can live in a world of 100% certainties. You're very lucky. Enjoy it, and I hope you're never proven wrong.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:23 AM on March 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


TedW - I'll add - it is precisely because we're imperfect that such training is developed. Don't conflate my assertion that it's possible to perform a single task perfectly reliably with a broader scope argument on judgment or criminal negligence. I can reliably train someone to draw and fire perfectly no matter their mental state or the conditions. I cannot reliably train their reasoning to properly judge when, where, how, etc.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:25 AM on March 11, 2009


DarlingBri - yes, because after years of training and study I've suddenly forgotten how to throw a punch. Huh. Guess I'll have to go relearn that. Also, I've forgotten how to walk. I have to consciously think about putting one foot in front of the other. Gosh, I hope I'm certain I can bench press 300 pounds. Gee, I'd better not just try that all at once even though I just did it Monday because, y'know, no human ability is 100% certain.

Again, an error in degree (I take a punch) does not equate to an error in kind (I don't know how to parry). I'm still alive not because I'm smart or lucky, but because I'm trained to react a certain way under certain circumstances to operate at a high degree of efficiency. So don't fucking insult me with this condescension. I live in a world of extremely limited certainties that may or may not be appropriate in response depending on a limited area of judgement.
I know damned well it's possible to make a variety of errors that could harm my child and an error in reason or any number of other things could render my single focus moot.

In fact, I find it extraordinarily callous and appalling that implicit in your statement is the death of my child at the expense of me making some realization of your perceptions.
And I'd have to ask just where the fuck you think you get off? I mean, how fucking dare you?

If anything my argument strongly supports compassion for parents and renders the argument for their prosecution moot because despite even a 100% success ratio (yes, yes, I know, which you don't believe in and you hope my child dies so I realize how foolish and ignorant I am) there are myriad other elements which can lead to a mistake that subsume personal responsibility.
Oh, but fuck me. My kids should die because I dare think I can perform one very trainable, repeatable element of a complex task the same way every time. Yeah, behavior modification, what a wacky theory.
Use probable behaviors to reinforce less probable behaviors, what a naive superficial understanding I have of how this stuff works. Oh, Smedley, a ten billion to one chance is still possible. Uh huh. Ok. So on top of the 99.9999% chance this won't happen to me, my application of conscious effort and training gooses the odds to say, 99.999999999999% against, I'll win the lottery six times before it happens, is that enough of a concession so that you don't wish that what you perceive as my arrogance leads to the death of my kids?

Hey, here's a thought, I'm 100% certain I'd lose in a fight between me and a feeding frenzy of great white sharks.
Jesus fucking christ, you'd think there'd be some latitude there and my meaning would be taken. Nope. Plate of fucking beans. Oh, and plus? Hope you're such an arrogant prick your kid dies.
Thanks. Thanks so fucking much.
Hey, here's another never for you - I'll never get an apology. When I think I'm wrong or I've been proven so, I apologize all the time...oh, wait, until I don't. I guess I can't really make statements on my own behaviors, since, y'know, anything can happen.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:02 AM on March 11, 2009


DarlingBri – incidentally, there’s no ultimatum there. I’m not an ultimatum type guy. There’s no ‘or’ there. I don’t even want an apology. You sarcastically implied it for a cheap rhetorical point, you live with it.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:12 AM on March 11, 2009


Jesus, Smedleyman, chill out. When someone says that they "hope you're never proven wrong," they're saying they hope your kid doesn't die. That doesn't begin to deserve the vitriol you've just displayed here.

Also, I guaran-fucking-tee you that the majority of parents who have experienced this tragedy would've said that there's a 100% chance they'd never, ever, ever let this happen to them. Nobody thinks it's going to happen to them. All parents -- all the good ones, anyway -- have a variety of systems and fail-safes in place to make sure this doesn't happen to them.

And yet, here we are.
posted by shiu mai baby at 11:26 AM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


*clarification: these parents would've said that they'd never do such a thing before each of their own personal tragedies.
posted by shiu mai baby at 11:28 AM on March 11, 2009


"That doesn't begin to deserve the vitriol you've just displayed here."

It sure looked like sarcasm to me. Folks have said "yeah, have a nice life" to me in a tone indicating they didn't wish I had one. Seemed to be of the same order. If DarlingBri says it wasn't meant sarcastically, that the thought is that he or she genuinely thinks I live in a world of 100% certainties, or isn't disputing my point, then I'm wrong. But I don't think that was what was meant. By the same token, I don't genuinely believe there's any real desire that my kids come to any harm, I'd have to take DarlingBri's word for it (and I'll admit my mistake and apologize for the vitriol), but it comes off that way to me.

"Nobody thinks it's going to happen to them."

How hard is it to understand the point that 100% certainty that you will do something doesn't equate to 100% success? I know I can put up 300 lbs. I am 100% certain I can.
That doesn't mean the weight won't slip in my hand, or I'll be unbalanced and the plates will slip off or I won't lose my grip and brain myself on the bar.
Explain to me where my argument doesn't contain your, and others', points on how a tragedy can happen to anyone (with the exception that I'm saying it can happen regardless of the competency of the parent in completing one limited function in a series).

"All parents -- all the good ones, anyway -- have a variety of systems and fail-safes in place to make sure this doesn't happen to them."

Yes, and likely they've thought of things I haven't. Ergo their overall chances of not leaving their baby in the car through some other misfortune could be higher than my reliance on one ritual.
Which leads to my larger point about personal responsibility vs. social responsibility and why individual actions can be excused no matter how well they're performed.

So, ok, let me put forth an analog - I'll never not react to a punch thrown at me due to years of training. Is that an unfathomable concept? I'm not saying I'm not ever going to get hit, just that my reaction is so ingrained that I'll never not slip it or parry or counter - etc.

You think I'm missing something - explain to me how I could suddenly lose that faculty. Not how I could get hit, because I'm fully in agreement with that, but how I could suddenly just not react.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:53 PM on March 11, 2009


Am I way out of line here?
posted by Smedleyman at 1:14 PM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Excuse me, Smedleyman, you intolerable prig, I was being nice to you. It was a sincere post. To come screaming at me, putting words in my mouth, saying I hope your child dies?

Fuck you, and fuck off.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:42 PM on March 11, 2009


Ok, so way out of line then. I apologize. Pretty sensitive topic and it looked like sarcasm to me and obviously I let that anger color my judgment. I was wrong.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:44 PM on March 11, 2009


It was a good thread till people went crazy.
posted by chunking express at 1:45 PM on March 11, 2009


Yep. As I am now one of those people, I can't really point any fingers. But these tangents and refusal to read or attempt to understand each other's POV can get frustrating for anyone. And of course, I at last made that kind of mistake myself. *sigh* Should have seen that coming. I'm also 100% certain I have an explosive temper. Should have taken more pains to guard against that. Hell, defeats my own argument to allow anger to cloud my receptivity to other perspectives. Makes me look like a hypocrite as well as an asshole. Stupid primitive angry monkey adrenal glands.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:21 PM on March 11, 2009


I still don't understand how people could forget and leave their child in the car, after reading about the brain and how people here have done it, etc. The examples of cat food in the trash, or slippers, or the cheese commercial, or what have you don't really translate for me. Yeah, I am not a parent, and I don't have an informed opinion on what punishment if any should be meted out, but I am just really at a loss to see how this could happen. Things out of routine happen all the time and people adjust.
posted by sweetkid at 7:13 PM on March 11, 2009


"but I am just really at a loss to see how this could happen"

I think the confluence of events example is probably the best. Replace slippers or my ritual with an absolutely 100% perfect every time fail safe piece of technology - you still have other variables that can invalidate the context in which such an instrument would work.
Which is why overlap is one thing (which can be defeated given time and a large enough sample size - the odds against someone winning the lottery are very large, and yet, someone eventually wins) and changing the environment is another.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:05 PM on March 11, 2009


I understand how someone could forget "something." Not their child.
posted by sweetkid at 5:34 AM on March 12, 2009


Ok, so way out of line then. I apologize. Pretty sensitive topic and it looked like sarcasm to me and obviously I let that anger color my judgment. I was wrong.

Thank you for doing your part to keep things civil. As one of the posters critiqueing you I apologize if I caused any offense; that was not my intent.
posted by TedW at 5:44 AM on March 12, 2009


I understand how someone could forget "something." Not their child.

Just because something is very important doesn't mean it can't be forgotten. Memory is complex.

As someone else mentioned recently, these parents don't forget their child for hours and hours: they forget their child for a few crucial minutes. Weingarten mentions in his chat on Monday that several of these parents even formed complete, false memories of dropping their child off at day care.
Baltimore, Md.: What about this idea for a preventative measure: (1) wear a wrist-watch that has an alarm feature, (2) every time you put your child in the car seat, set the alarm for 15 minutes after you expect to take him out of the car, (3) if you ever forget the child, the alarm should sound and notify you of your mistake. If you really want to make this work, use two alarm clocks -- a wrist watch alarm and a small travel alarm-clock that you carry in your pocket. Then the failure of one of the alarm clocks is not a fatal event. I use this technique when I put my dog outside in a fenced yard on a hot day. I don't want to ever forget that the dog is out there.

Gene Weingarten: I think there are two problems with this. The first is that there is a LOT of stuff you have to remember to do. The second is that -- I know this will sound odd -- some parents would just turn off the alarm, convinced they had delivered the child to daycare. I talked to 13 parents who had lived through this: Five of them told me they had formed a very specific, detailed memory of having dropped off the child.
posted by maudlin at 6:14 AM on March 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


"As one of the posters critiqueing you I apologize if I caused any offense; that was not my intent."
No apology necessary. You were quite civil. It was thoroughly my mistake in judgment of DarlingBri's tone in her comment. She was apparently quite sincere and earnest in her statement (and although she's been justifiably put off, she's also been gracious and contentious in private comments) which makes me feel like even more of a complete asshole. So, no one's fault but my own.

"I understand how someone could forget "something." Not their child."

But you understand how the operation of even completely reliable machines can be rendered moot right? The point about myself - this will never, or at least for the sake of argument let's presume that this will never, happen to me. I won't forget my child because I don't rely on memory per se.
I recognize the dispute over that so let's replace part of my brain responsible for checking the back seat for my child with a 100% foolproof machine that performs only that one task when in that particular series (getting out of car, check baby, call person baby is presumed to be with now).

There are events that occur that can bypass that series and so bypass the otherwise 100% reliable operation. The confluence of those events can be tremendously unlikely, but can happen. So I think 'forget' is an inappropriate word. Distracted perhaps? Or assumptive? Presumptive?
Plenty of things can happen out of context.
And, I'll add, safeguards aren't enough. I'm pretty susceptible to anger. I take precautions, I rely on discipline and principles - I can still lose my temper over something given its tangential to those things I rely on. Or I make an error in judgment. Or it's in another context. So it's just an end run around my conceptual protections.

Kinda like when you're a kid and you see a teacher at a grocery store or smoking outside a restaurant or something. It's almost surreal because your brain is so used to your teacher being only in school, so contextually, your brain doesn't know how to deal with it. It looks entirely wrong.

So, same deal - alarm goes off telling you the kid is there - your brain takes it out of context because you're now in the place of "No, my child is at day care. The alarm is wrong."

And I'll add - this has a sort of recursive element to it. You don't understand how a parent could 'forget' their child. So for you, this concept is out of context. It causes a sort of short circuit and therefore you - as anyone does - assume something is 'off' with that.
What one reasons out of that is a whole other ball of wax - prosecution, compassion, whatever.

But it's entirely the point that people go "WTF?" and their brains trip a circuit to find some rational explanation, but importantly, one that fits the current context.

It's why stage magic works. Your brain would rather believe someone is actually levitating or some such than the evidence of its senses could be circumvented so easily.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:07 AM on March 12, 2009


Er, conscientious not contentious. This spell check is kind of goofy.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:08 AM on March 12, 2009


My thoughts on whether it should be criminally prosecuted. Excerpt:
What if you were the parent ... and your babysitter did this to your child? Would you want the babysitter to be charged with a crime (assuming they're over 18)? It would hardly seem principled to have a rule that parents are legally allowed to do this to their children but babysitters aren't allowed to do it to other people's children.

To me, the decisive factor is the "lifelong sentence of guilt far greater than any a judge or jury could mete out" (as the article puts it). No matter what technical argument might be made about how prosecutors could legally charge the parent with a crime, that doesn't mean they have to do so. Living with the guilt is punishment enough; it seems like a waste of resources to make the parent also serve a prison sentence, even a light one.

Another problem, though: this is a very well-crafted article that exclusively describes the parents as sympathetic and loving. But there are parents who routinely neglect their children because they're always drunk or high, or because they just don't care enough. I haven't seen any evidence to show that any such parents have caused their children to die by leaving them in cars, but it's entirely possible. Should prosecutors treat those parents differently from "normal" parents?
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:49 AM on March 12, 2009


I understand how someone could forget "something." Not their child.

I actually think it's disturbingly easy to imagine this. Can't you think of a time when you told yourself, "I have to do tasks A, B, C, and D in the next hour," then felt assured that you did everything you were supposed to, only to realize hours later that you never did task B? Well, imagine doing that, but task B is dropping your kid off at day care. (self-plagiarized from blog)
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:51 AM on March 12, 2009


Memory and autonomic response errors are too familiar to designers (and forensic auditors of) safety-critical systems. It's good to see Reason's swiss cheese model get some press, but it's always irked me that it doesn't really offer anything other than a metaphor in which to justify past events, and a segue into how to stop identical specific events from happening again.

Jumping to the conclusion that the solution is in an automatic system of interlocks, or alarms, or something that "tells you what to do" is a bit hasty. That might work, just like it works for people locking their keys in the car :), but there are alternatives.

For my money, Rory definitely has the best idea. Humans may not be so good at recall, but they're great at recognition. Humans are also very good at picking faces out of cluttered vision scenes. Nobody minds glancing at their baby's face in the rear view mirror, and anyone who saw their baby's face when they didn't expect to would very likely be shocked out of their autonomic rut.

The tradeoff: I'd bet that a rearview mirror system would be counteracted by increasing risk of collisions in everyday use. Could be either by encouraging people to spend more time looking in the rearview mirror more, and not noticing the driving scene in the rearview mirror when their baby's face is taking up 1/3 of the view.

Sounds like a job for some science. Who's got the research money.
posted by anthill at 8:05 AM on March 14, 2009


I don't know if anyone is still reading this, but this case came to my attention today. Note that no one was injured and the parent did it on purpose. Is it a crime? I think so. I wish they had given the age of the "older child". I do think the age here makes ton of difference.

Mother arrested after she left her 2 children inside a car while she shopped at Wal-Mart
posted by anastasiav at 11:13 AM on March 19, 2009


That's really not the same situation as what is being described in the article. She didn't forget her kids were there. She was using a car as a baby sitter.
posted by chunking express at 11:15 AM on March 19, 2009


That's really not the same situation as what is being described in the article. She didn't forget her kids were there. She was using a car as a baby sitter.

No, it's not the same situation, but it does serve as a pretty clear example of why these things at least need to be investigated. This woman was clearly intentionally neglectful.
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:58 AM on March 19, 2009


Another one here in Seattle that seems to have knowingly left their child in the car. =(
posted by nomisxid at 12:54 PM on April 7, 2009


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