Montreal

How a parent can forget their child in a hot car

The death of an infant in Saint-Jérôme last week has raised the question: how could a parent forget their own child in the car? Car seat regulations, distraction, stress and change in routine can all play a role in a fatal mistake, experts say.

Car seat regulations, distraction, stress and change in routine can all play a role in fatal mistake

In 2016, there have been at least 27 reported cases of children who died from heat strokes in cars in the U.S. (Radio-Canada)

Crown prosecutors in Quebec are deciding whether a father should face charges in the death of his infant son, who was left in a car all day in Saint-Jérôme earlier this week.

The baby boy's father forgot to drop him off at daycare, only realizing in the evening that his son was still inside the car.

On CBC Montreal's Facebook page, many readers raised the same question: how could a parent forget their own child in the car?

This kind of case is far from rare in North America. In 2016, there have been at least 27 reported cases of children who died from heat strokes in cars in the U.S.

Janette Fennell, the president and founder of U.S.-based advocacy groups Kids and Cars told CBC News that 37 children die in hot cars on average each year in North America.

"The worst mistake you can make is to think this can't happen to you," Fennell said.

A failure of memory

Gene Weingarten, a Washington Post writer who won a Pulitzer prize for his reporting on similar cases, describes forgetting a child in the backseat as a lapse in memory, the kind that can be triggered by something as simple as a change in daily routine or stress in a parent's life.

"This is a failure of memory, this is not a failure of responsibility or an absence of love. It's something that happens on the chemical level, on the cellular level," Weingarten said.

Audrey Dubé-Martin died in 2003 after her father forgot to drop her off at daycare and left her in his sweltering car for eight hours while he was at work. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Alyssa Sklar, a Montreal-based private educational consultant, agrees and says there are a myriad of reasons for why a driver could forget an infant or young child in the backseat.

"If they fall asleep and your mind is distracted, you're thinking about work or something else happens or it's not part of your daily routine, then it's easier to overlook them because they are quiet and in the back," Sklar said.

'A recipe for disaster'

The number of children dying of heat stroke in cars began to rise following the widespread introduction of passenger-side airbags in the 1990s, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and data collected by San Jose University.

The airbag regulations led to a decrease in airbag-related deaths since car seats were moved to the back and facing the rear, but researchers at the university say fatalities related to heat stroke spiked since children were out of the driver's view.

Since 2003, more than 400 children have died across North America, according to Kids and Cars. (Maria Sbytova/Shutterstock)

"You've got an overstressed, probably sleep-deprived parent, who is now transporting a child who is in the back seat and is rear-facing," Fennell said. "You put all of those particulars together and it is definitely a recipe for disaster."

Kids and Cars reports that since 2003, more than 400 children have died as a result of heat strokes in cars across North America.

Moms, dads, lawyers, doctors: anyone can forget

Weingarten describes the phenomenon as one that can easily happen to anyone.

"This happens to high-income people, low-income people, middle-income people," Weingarten said. "Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers, it happens to people who are disorganized, it happens to people who are fanatically organized. There is no profile."

A distraction or stress can lead drivers to forget an infant is with them in the car. (CBC)

Fennell says parents who are college professors, lawyers, doctors, judges and postal workers have accidentally killed their own children by leaving them in the car on a sweltering day.

"People find it easier to make monsters out of the people that this has happened to," Fennell said. "And that's even somewhat of a defence mechanism because they decide well if that person's a monster, then I'm not a monster, this can't happen to me."​

With files from Steve Rukavina and the Associated Press

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