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Look before you lock: Child safety advocates worry about hot car deaths amid COVID-19 stress and rising temperatures

In the first seven months of 2020, 14 children in the U.S. died in hot cars, according to child safety website KidsAndCars.org.

That’s significantly down from the record-setting years of 2018 and 2019. Why?

“A lot of these deaths are completely accidental and are caused by parents simply leaving their children in their car for too long. But when you shelter-in-place at home and nobody’s going to work, you reduce that risk,” Janette Fennell, who runs KidsAndCars.org.

But child safety advocates like Fennell worry that the COVID-19 pandemic might bring new risk factors as the mercury rises through August and into September.

According to David Diamond, a professor in the University of South Florida’s psychology department, the overriding stress caused by the ongoing public health emergency has the potential to impact how our memory functions. That, he said, can lead to fatal mistakes. “In a sense, we’re always memory multi-tasking. Part of that can be impacted by stress,” Diamond said. “When we face a stressful situation, our memory is the most vulnerable because that’s when we lose awareness of our child in the back seat.” Diamond’s research into memory has shown that the unintentional reprioritization of stressors isn’t always the way we’d want to organize our own priorities, especially in the face of stress. “When we’re experiencing stress, the most imminent stressor tends to become the most important one — it’s just how the human brain functions,” he said. “For example, when you’re late to work, it’s easy to hyperfocus on that and lose sight of other more important things.”

KidsandCars.org has a list of daily tips to avoid vehicular heatstroke. One piece of advice: Make it a habit to open the back door every time you park to ensure nobody is inside. To enforce this habit, place an essential item (like key or a cellphone) in the back seat so you can’t start your day without taking a look before you lock.

Secondly, have back-up measures in place, like asking your child-care provider to call you if your child hasn’t arrived on schedule.

“It’s important to realize that the vast majority of these deaths aren’t negligent parents,” Fennell said. “We need to take responsibility for our children but, more importantly, we need to make sure to take responsibility for our flawed memory so no child is forgotten in the car.”

More than 50 children died of vehicular heatstroke in both 2018 and 2019. Thirty-five of the record 54 fatalities in 2018 happened in the first seven months of the year. There were 53 deaths last year, including 26 in the first seven months.