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March 8, 2009

I am your words, failing me, right now
Posted by Patrick at 11:25 PM *

One of the most astonishing pieces of newspaper journalism I have ever read. I hesitate to say anything to introduce it; just read. But brace yourself first.

It’s not the story you think it’s going to be from the lead.

Comments on I am your words, failing me, right now:
#1 ::: Tae Kim ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:03 AM:

One part of me wants to say 'how can anyone forget their kid in the car'? The other part of me prevents me from saying it for fear of ironic twist with my own kids. That chick is compartmented in ways I cannot imagine.

#2 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:06 AM:

As I said at majikthise, things like this scare me, because I can see how it happens.

Good lord, how any of us live to be adults amazes me.

#3 ::: dance ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:08 AM:

While the content is astonishing (and I'm near tears after reading it), I'm also thinking, "this is the best of what a newspaper can be."

#4 ::: Hinckaert ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:21 AM:

I read and was floored by the whole thing before I realized it was written by Gene Weingarten, who is normally the Post's humor columnist (he fills the back-page-of-the-magazine space Dave Barry used to have.) Two years ago he wrote the Pulitzer-winning story about a violin virtuoso who took his Stradivarius to a subway station during morning rush hour. It's also worth a read.

#5 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:21 AM:

Yeep. Parents of small children may want to skip that one entirely.

#6 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:27 AM:

Ok, I went and read it.

Words fail me too.

Wow. That's... no, there is no way to really sum up how stunning the resolution of that is.

#7 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:28 AM:

Hinkaert: I'm glad I didn't know that, because the strad story pissed me off, not at the people in the Metro, but at the writer.

#8 ::: Tae Kim ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:29 AM:

#5 Mary Dell "Yeep. Parents of small children may want to skip that one entirely."

I disagree. I think it should be required reading for parents with small children. I see people equally divided into the 'how could *anyone* forget their kid in a car', and 'it could happen to me' camps. Sometimes they're in both. That article is a warning to stay diligent and not rush to judge.

#9 ::: Lance Weber ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:31 AM:

I'm a terrible empathizer, especially when I'm not actually face-to-face with someone. That story, the writing...I couldn't help but see myself in the tale of the first man with a very powerful emotional connection. I had to stop reading for a bit and pick it back up after collecting myself.

I'm off to hug the girls, but I've bookmarked the article so I can study the craftsmanship more objectively much much later.

PS. Patrick, I think you owe us a unicorn chaser after this.

#10 ::: EClaire ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:34 AM:

Yeah, I read this as I was nursing my 8 month old to sleep. Probably not a wise choice, because the sobbing kept him awake.
It could happen to me. I know that. The first time we went out with Stefan, we forgot to close the car door after we got him out. Completely forgot, went grocery shopping and came out to a car door wide open. So I have no illusions that it couldn't happen to me.
That's why it's so terrifying.

#11 ::: Michael Turyn ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:34 AM:

1.) It's incredibly petty of me to say, but it was strange for me to read this tonight, as I was feeling terrible about a lot of minor and larger screw-ups I've been perpetrating lately, and which now don't seem all that important, and which are now easier to see as perhaps related to (overly felt) family and employment stress. Again, terribly petty---it pales before what I feel when I wonder if one or another deaths in my family could have been prevented by my paying more attention and energy---but true nonetheless.

2.) (On reading of the posts to the Post) Fucking 'narrative'. I'm sorry if I've just broken a rule here, but as I don't curse in print very much it seemed an appropriately forceful way to put it. 'Narrative' keeps you from leaving your country before the government seizes your assets and kills you, because 'that sort of thing doesn't happen'. Narrative makes you think you won't get AIDS, because you're no queer, you just have sex with them. Narrative tells you it's o.k. to torture Bad People, and you're safe doing it because not even torturing will make you a Bad Person. A narrative will keep you in an obviously-crashing Market or drunk-driven car. A narrative will tell you how you absolutely must liquidate those kulaks, kill of those Injuns, blow up those Crusaders, cluster-bomb those terrorists. God-damned stories, including the God and Damnation's o.k. to try to make some sense out of what's going on, but the sheer seductive toxicity of a good story that lies to you, throws reifications up in front of your eyes to blind you to---well, things like, sometimes parents fuck up very, very, more 'very's-than- this-page-can-hold badly, and they're not bad people, or at least not worse than you.

Hab rachmones. This is not really a Fallen world, as it was never higher (unless you consider the amoral purity of rhododontonychal Nature 'higher'), nor is it a Broken one, as it was not made to do or to be anything in particular, but neither it nor we measures up to what we know we want and intuit could be.

Sure, there are good and beneficial stories, but given how much ill the bad ones do, I'd rather leave them all to the printed page where they belong, and where we have some hope of remembering what they are.

Understand the misery of cities, and of bodies and their epiphenomenal minds, and hab rachmones.

#12 ::: Tae Kim ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:37 AM:

And then I looked at the slideshow, and felt much more. I'm glad I didn't read/look at the same time.

#13 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:39 AM:

All dead on.

-Way too easy to happen;
-No one wants to believe that;
-To "prove" it can't happen to anyone, those it happens to must be vilified;
-Trial and punishment will not function as a deterrent;
-Those poor people it happens to will punish themselves far worse and far more than any "justice" system could;
-Balfour is amazing.

Great article; astounding closing.
[And will some d1ck like the DA, being forewarned, now try to pass a law making Balfour's intentions illegal before she can carry them through?]

Thank you, Patrick.

#14 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:50 AM:

Because I can't avoid comment: gur raqvat, jung onysbhe vf cynaavat gb qb... sybbef zr. V nyzbfg oebxr qbja naq jrcg. V fnj vg pbzvat, whfg n srj jbeqf orsber vg jnf eriirnyrq, ohg....

Gung'f ybir, naq ubcr naq tevrs naq enj rzbgvbany cbjre. V qba'g xabj vs vg'f fnvagyl be frysvfu, naq V qba'g pner.

I'll buy her all the drinks she wants.

#15 ::: Gavin Edwards ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:51 AM:

I read that story last night and was impressed and moved.

Which is not how I felt about the violinist story, which I thought was facile, and am very disappointed to learn won the Pulitzer. Scraps was the one who came up with the analogy of making random phone calls and having a top-notch actor read passages of Shakespeare, and then acting surprised (and drawing sweeping cultural conclusions) when people hang up the phone.

Weingarten also wrote one of the funniest pieces I've ever seen in a newspaper, a 10/15/2000 Washington Post column where he told PR reps that he would write about their product glowingly in the newspaper if they revealed a humiliating personal secret about themselves, which he would also print. Nine of fifteen agreed; Weingarten kept his end of the bargain.

#16 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:54 AM:

There was a relatively recent case of that happening around here.
In the thankfully near-miss category, probably two or three years ago, there was a case of the father putting the baby carrier on the roof and then driving off. The carrier flew off the top of the car. Horns honked at him, appalled drivers hit their brakes and turned to avoid causing catastrophe. Miraculously the carrier protected the baby and the child survived unhurt from literally going flying.

That's one with a happy ending--child okay, father appalled by what he had done, but the child was okay, and the potential catastrophe, wasn't one.

The fatal cases.... bad things happen to even thoose of the best intentions. People forget things. People in SUVs back over children in the blind spot and kill their children or grandchildren. It's horrifying... but those sorts of tragedies where a parent or elder sibling forgets or loses track of the child or younger sibling, with dire consequences, have been happening for all of history. They're miserable and horrible and appalling. There's no failsafe for living that's absolutely failsafe, and people are imperfect, and tragedies happen. That's not to say one shouldn't try to prevent them to be assiduous and alert and cognizant at all times... but there are failures, there were, there have been, here are, there will be--fewer than there could be, as people try to do the right thing and try to maintain vigilance, but falling short happens, and there are consequences, including the mental anguish.

#17 ::: Brodysattva ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:57 AM:

Gene Weingarten is a great reporter. His stories on a small, isolated town in Alaska and on an extremely successful children's entertainer named The Great Zucchini are some of my favorite pieces of writing by anyone in any venue. I thought the Josh Bell thing was lame, though.

#18 ::: Geoffrey Kidd ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:03 AM:

Innocence is no protection. There is none from Fate.

#19 ::: J Austin ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:04 AM:

My mother forgot me at a grocery store one time when I was little. While she shopped, I'd gotten distracted by the comic book rack, and was being quiet, when usually I was yammering away about wonderful nothing. That was all it took. Quiet=no kid.
It's a funny story. Because it wasn't the car.
I'm always horrified when these stories come out, but reading how the brain mechanism can fail reminded me of the cashier calling my mom.
"Nita, did you forget somethin?"

#20 ::: Evan Goer ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:07 AM:

It's a startling, incredibly moving piece. What an amazing job by Weingarten.

The one thing I wonder about is -- is the piece trying to extract too much meaning out of the online comments? You see equally cruel trolling attached to *any* newspaper story involving people and their foibles.

#21 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:13 AM:

Ok, I feel messed up after readng that. Parenthood made me softer emotionally, and I think it's a permanent change.

> 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.

Too true. It's not so horrifying if you can say it's the work of a horrible irresponsible monster. I've done enough stupid things with my brain on autopilot...

#22 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:14 AM:

Some recent ancestor of mine, a grandparent or great-aunt or -uncle, was left at a bus stop while on a family trip. My cousin Lexa has been left in multiple hotel lobbies. I once listened, from the corner where I was reading, as my entire family loaded into cars and drove to a restaurant-- I was testing them, really, seeing if they would remember me. They didn't. My sister, the wanderer, used to turn up in odd places, across busy streets, far from home.

The point that if you can forget your cell phone, you can forget your child, is important.

#23 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:14 AM:


Thank you for posting that, Patrick. The end is particularly--what? Affecting? Moving? Devastating? Damn.

Every now and then I look at my large children and am stunned that they got through infancy and childhood in one piece.

#24 ::: Martin Schafer ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:14 AM:

It's an excellent article, but there is one point that I would have liked to have seen followed up on. They mention that the incidence of these deaths jumped significantly after people stopped putting their baby in the front seat because of worries about air bag deaths. The article says there are 15 to 25 hyperthermia deaths a year. A little googling says deaths in children 12 and under due to air bags dropped from 35 to 18 between 1996 and 2000 when this recommendation was taken up. There was no break down in age, but I suspect we are causing more deaths than we are saving by telling people to put the baby in the back. There must be some age, I'd guess 3 or 4, where the odds of being forgotten actually leading to death drop off enough that the child belongs in back, but younger than that I suspect they should be in front.

#25 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:14 AM:

Tae Kim #8

#5 Mary Dell "Yeep. Parents of small children may want to skip that one entirely."

I disagree. I think it should be required reading for parents with small children.

I read as much of it as I could bear, after bracing myself, as Patrick wisely recommends. Like many parents, I live in constant fear of my baby coming to harm. Like not as many parents, I have spent nights in the hospital with him recently, listening to him breathe and watching his monitored o2 level rising and falling throughout the night. Reading about dead children is terrifying and painful for me. So I think it's valid for me to believe that some parents may find the article deeply upsetting and might do better to educate themselves in a gentler way.

I don't know you, but I'd like to think that you aren't really so cruel as to believe people should be required to read, in graphic detail, about the worst thing they can imagine.

I am certified in infant CPR and safety, and I recommend that any parent do the same. The class offered by the red cross covers all manner of potentially fatal mistakes, including this one.

#26 ::: p mac ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:15 AM:

Powerful story, with a powerful ending.

One obvious moral: if you have backwards-facing child seat, use the front seat. The airbag isn't going to do any damage then. (Talk about laws with unintended consequences.)

#27 ::: J Austin ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:24 AM:

Something just occurred to me. So many of us say "This could never happen. I would never forget." But it's obviously normal enough that it's been a comedy cliche since the year Dot.

The harried young mother, father, two hapless uncles--whatever--gathering up the diaper bag, the favorite toy, the blankie, the car seat, and yep, they leave the apartment without the child. Canned laughter as they sprint back up the steps and skid back into the living room.

Obviously, we are very aware that it can happen to us, enough to relate, to know what's going to happen by the way the scene is set up.

#28 ::: Dave Trowbridge ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:48 AM:

Tikkun olam. That's what Balfour is doing. It is not what those who prosecute such parents are doing.

#29 ::: Tae Kim ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:50 AM:

Mary Dell #25

So I think it's valid for me to believe that some parents may find the article deeply upsetting and might do better to educate themselves in a gentler way.

I don't know you, but I'd like to think that you aren't really so cruel as to believe people should be required to read, in graphic detail, about the worst thing they can imagine.

I've been accused of being that in my life, but this time I'm not doing it for cruel points.

Sometimes graphic and upsetting is the way into an entrenched mind. I'm a parent, a former paramedic, now finishing my emergency medicine residency. I vacillate between wanting to kill or comfort parents all the time. Same goes for my kids, too.

The article brought out a point that I've struggled with ever since I've heard of infant hyperthermia deaths, which I mentioned in an earlier post. To put it bluntly, I ask myself "How could some of these people be so stupid as to forget their kids." Saying that makes me feel as if it won't happen to me because I'm not stupid, but sidesteps the more terrifying idea that these people aren't stupid and it could happen to anyone.

The normal thing to do is to shake one's head, cluck the tongue, and feel badly for the parents, but take comfort in the knowledge that that could never happen to you. Or me. Because we are too smart, too vigilant for something like that to happen. The article shakes that belief right out of me. It terrifies me.

I am certified in infant CPR and safety, and I recommend that any parent do the same. The class offered by the red cross covers all manner of potentially fatal mistakes, including this one.

That's my point. I've no doubt that some of the parents in the article knew CPR and first aid, and child-proofed their homes. Their kids are still dead.

The article is not just a cautionary tale, but a reminder to people quick to judge that it happens to people who love and care for their children and sometimes you cannot blame the parent for a tragic, baffling lapse in memory. It's a tough thing to believe, and this article brought out my own internal struggle so clearly that I'm grateful for having the chance to read it.

#30 ::: Spiny Norman ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:51 AM:

Evan @ 20: "The one thing I wonder about is -- is the piece trying to extract too much meaning out of the online comments?"

No, it isn't. Remember that about half of the cases are prosecuted for negligent homicide, manslaughter, etc. The reason is that prosecutors, most of them elected, tend to understand the way that a lot of the the folks who vote them into office think; compassion is not a word often heard in such races. Online comments, like votes, can be a form of secret balloting.

#31 ::: JulieB ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:52 AM:

There was a case in Dallas this weekend. The car was unlocked, amazingly, and someone was able to rescue the child. The baby had only been in the car for half an hour, but it was over 80 here yesterday, so this story could have had a far worse ending.

#32 ::: el dub ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 02:01 AM:

My comments and observations:
-This is absolutely terrifying.
-How ironic is it that stress and lack of sleep, 2 factors in these accidents, are a normal, expected, unavoidable result of being a parent.
-I have no doubt that this could happen to anyone. My own personal example is a new mother I know who recently has worn pants and shirts backwards, out of sheer exhaustion, I assume. This article is a good reminder that important things can slip through the cracks too, God forbid, and that compassion is the proper response, not judgement.
-Another idea I take from this article is that maybe I can't multi-task as well as I think I can. I would be interested to know if accidents of this type have started happening more frequently since we have gotten in the habit of being on the phone all the time.

#33 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 02:04 AM:

Prosecutors, generally, don't seem to be rational about what they perceive to be criminal behavior. Look at the number of them who want to re-try prisoners who have been conclusively proven innocent by virtue of DNA.

Fortunately, the prosecutor of the case of mistaken identity covered on tonight's 60 Minutes was not one of those. But the guy mentioned in the Balfour case, Chapman, looks to be one who is.

#34 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 02:07 AM:

Words failing. Yes. If you haven't read all the way to the end, do.

#35 ::: Debbie Notkin ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 02:11 AM:

I was once with a couple of perfectly fine parents who came that close to leaving their 3-year-old locked in their night club, sound asleep, when they went home.

She would have survived, although she would also have been scared to near-death.

And I saw their faces when they realized what had almost happened.

#36 ::: Thalia ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 02:37 AM:

I remember reading about this case when it happened. I can absolutely see how this could happen. I've been the sleep deprived mom dropping my son at the daycare half asleep after a night up with with the little one, before going into work. Scared the hell out of me when I first read this story. It still does, although both my kids are now old enough to unbuckle the car seat & I've taught both to unbuckle & honk the horn if they ever get trapped in a car.

#37 ::: geek anachronism ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 02:41 AM:

I'm the kind of person who has left keys in the front door, or the ignition of the car. The kind of person who has put my wallet full of cash on top of the car and driven off. I was forgotten as a child, on several occasions - just not in a locked car.

I'm pregnant, and like a lot of things to do with that and having children, I have never ever once thought 'that would never happen to me'. That sort of narrative, that says "trauma only happens to people who break the rules" just doesn't exist in my world. Unlike a good friend who has decided that all of my worrying was for naught because I take the right vitamins and do the right things, so I'm safe, I don't expect to be safe from random occurences, my own mistakes and life in general simply because I follow rules.

Mind you, check the back seat needs to be a rule for me now (well, soon).

That said, there have been a lot of cases recently where children have died after being deliberately left in the car - to the point casinos do checks now.

#38 ::: DBratman ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 02:51 AM:

Should we force, or encourage, parents to read this article in order to scare them? I think not.

Scaring people works on persuading people not to do things they mistakenly thought were OK. The article refers to a few cases of people who deliberately left the child in the car thinking that the kid would be OK there. Anybody under that delusion, yes, they should be forcefully informed they're wrong.

But the main subject of this article is people who were under no such delusion. They did not intend for a minute to leave the child there, and the instant they realized what they'd done, they moved to try to correct their mistake.

The memory expert is a useful character in this story, discussing why a mistake like this isn't something that can be fixed by scaring people or threatening them with jail. You don't forget things because you consciously or even subconsciously consider them unimportant, you forget them because that's how the mind works.

Unless you have never, ever in your life left your home or office forgetting to take something you meant to have, you cannot say that you could never do this.

The answer is to make it harder to forget. So ignore the frakking airbag, or better yet disable the passenger-side one, and keep a child too young to talk in the front seat.

This was an excellent article, vividly to the point. I'm glad I didn't remember it was by the author of the subway-violinist story, which was stupid to the point of inanity. Its misreading of the people who didn't stop and listen was as grotesque, if to far less consequence, as that of people who blame the parents in this article as callous killers.

#39 ::: Cynthia Wood ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 02:56 AM:

I lived in utter terror of leaving my baby in the car when I was a new Mom. We had just moved to AZ, and I am (at best) a "forget my own head if it wasn't attached" sort of person. The important thing to me about getting through people's heads that it isn't a matter of parental caring or parental smarts, is that there are things you can do if you realize you are vulnerable.

In my case, I made a habit - before the baby was even born - of making a circuit of the car and checking the backseat from all angles before locking up and leaving. I did it every time, whether I had the baby or not. I still do it now, and the baby in question is 10.

Because I knew, without question, that if I didn't have an automatic habit of checking, it might be me on the 6pm news, sobbing in a grocery store parking lot.

The story is astonishing. My heart goes out to all those parents, and doubly so to Balfour. Tikkun olam indeed.

#40 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 03:34 AM:

From the article:
[CA Ray] Morrogh has two kids himself, ages 12 and 14. He was asked if he could imagine this ever having happened to him. The question seemed to take him aback. He went on to another subject, and then, 10 minutes later, made up his mind: "I have to say no, it couldn't have happened to me. I am a watchful father."

Presumably, his children will get married. Presumably, they will themselves have children. Very likely, because they come from a privileged background, they will eventually have the same kinds of busy, multitasking lives that are chronicled over and over again in the course of the article. For the sake of his hypothetical grandchildren, I hope that those words never come back to haunt him.

I noticed (and I'm sure I'm not the only one) that the divide between blame and compassion for these parents seems to fall neatly between those to whom something similar has happened, and those to whom it hasn't.

#41 ::: Arachne Jericho ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 03:38 AM:

The article speaks truth to, I hope, power. I'm glad it exists. More people need to read it. This needs to be covered and heard widely.

Because cars need to be designed to help prevent this from happening. That never happens until something journalistic like this happens. It's not a panacea, but neither are airbags, and yet we have airbags.

There are abusive parents out there. There are negligent parents out there. The ones covered in this article are not them. And that is the scariest thing of all. It's not the graphic elements... it's the randomness.

#42 ::: Amy Sisson ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 03:40 AM:

That was extremely powerful. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

#43 ::: Russ Allbery ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 04:02 AM:

Wow. Thank you for posting that.

I was impressed, and then I got to the last page, and then there was a whole separate level of impressed. That's a truly amazing piece of journalism.

#44 ::: Ken Hirsch ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 04:18 AM:

I also recommend the Great Zucchini piece, as Brodysattva did. The way Weingarten reveals the story is masterful. It starts out very light, then gets more serious, although not as heavy as the current one.

I haven't read the story about the Alaskan town yet, but I will.

#45 ::: Bob Rossney ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 04:29 AM:

I haven't read word one of this yet, but given Patrick's description, the moment I moused over the link and saw the URL I knew whose byline I'd see.

#46 ::: Kate ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 04:31 AM:

I still live in horror that I will do this.

Miss S. is the most precious part of E's and my life. And I realize just how easily I could do something like this.


#47 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 04:45 AM:

When I was 11, we were visiting relatives. Three families; lots of adults, lots of kids, several cars to transport us all, some staying at a motel due to lack of room in the house. Some time (an hour, more?) after getting back from a day-trip, my mother realises she can't find me. Panic. Am I at the motel with the others? No. Was I left at the amusement park? Finally I'm found curled up asleep in the luggage area of the station wagon (way back before safety stuff like wearing seatbelts in the back, and not putting children in the luggage area - I liked travelling there, reading, undisturbed) totally oblivious to the commotion. My mother was angry with me (reaction, I now realise). So, it happens. In my case it was night time and I was old enough that I could have got out of the car if I'd woken up.

In the article - that woman's courage and compassion for others is amazing.

#48 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 05:01 AM:

As the person who famously left her baby in a bar (though only for a minute, and it was a very benign bar), I think it should be clear that this sort of thing can happen to any of us; particularly in the sleep-deprived months with a newborn.

I thought the subway violinist article was -- not stupid, exactly, but a bit of a stunt. And then, last month, one of the UK's best fiddlers turned up at our tune session at the folk club. And a few of us knew, or were told, who he was, but most people didn't. And I don't think anyone was in any doubt that he wasn't just some random player; it was quite astonishing. I think that article was about context and expectations; how could you possibly not notice, unless you never notice buskers at all?

#49 ::: bad Jim ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 05:09 AM:

1. A similar incident is a plot device in "The Importance of Being Earnest"

2. Yo Yo Ma once left his Stradivarius cello in a cab.

#50 ::: Bob Rossney ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 05:23 AM:

Having Joshua Bell play his Stradivarius in the subway at rush hour and see if people would realize what was going on was a stunt. The article wasn't. The article was funny and honest and went deep in a lot of non-obvious ways. (Needless to say, I disagree pretty strongly with Gavin and Scraps on this.)

And it occurs to me that it's about exactly the same thing. How could you miss something so significant?

#51 ::: Cassie ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 06:05 AM:

I found the Joshua Bell piece worth visiting for the embedded videos, which you can just listen to while you look at other tabs.

#52 ::: Marko Kloos ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 06:56 AM:

What a gut-wrenching read.

I'm vacillating between sadness over the children who died, pity for the parents who have to live with not only having lost a child, but having caused that death, and profound relief and gratitude that I can do what I do at home, without having to put my two kids in daycare.

That article is an exceptional piece of writing, and a tough piece to read for parents of small children. The fear of losing a child is something that gets permanently installed in your brain the moment you become a parent--part of the welcome package, so to speak. If one of my children died, and I knew I was instrumental in bringing that death about, I think the guilt would be unbearable.

Thanks for sharing this.

#53 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 08:00 AM:

What an amazing, spine-chilling, thought-provoking article. I'm certain this could happen to me: I spend about 40% of my time correcting for memory lapses in the other 60%. (The scary thing is that my dad is much worse: how did I survive to adulthood?)

... but, to channel Mark Liberman for a moment, why did Weingarten have to spoil such an excellent article with garbage pop neurology/evolutionary biology? It's extremely likely that whatever Diamond said, he was misunderstood, because what he's described as saying is flat-out wrong. Not oversimplified, just wrong. There is no great chain of being, there are no 'lower species', and the basal ganglia have been as heavily modified by evolution as any other structure which we share with lizards (probably more than most). No matter how hard I think about it, I can't figure out what 'the most sophisticated part of our thought-processing center' is meant to be: apparently it doesn't include memory, which I'd call pretty sophisticated.

As is typical of neurobunkum, the article is every bit as compelling without it. Just replace it with the truism 'human memory is fallible', and nothing meaningful is lost.

#54 ::: lightning ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 08:20 AM:


Should we force, or encourage, parents to read this article in order to scare them? I think not.

Agreed. A friend of mine went through the "scare treatment" in high school shop class, and to this day, she's terrified of power tools. You don't want to scare people into total immobility.

I'm glad I didn't remember it was by the author of the subway-violinist story, which was stupid to the point of inanity.

Again, agreed. Weingarten is one of the most unfunny "humor columnists" I know of. He's especially lame as a replacement for Dave Barry.

Perhaps, he's a symptom of the decline of newspapers in general and the Post in particular. He *can* do stuff like this, but he has to do something more "commercial" to pay his way.

#55 ::: Sarah S. ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 08:35 AM:

p mac @ 326

You say that the obvious solution is to put the baby in the front seat if one is using a rear-facing car seat.

The problem with that is in a lot of places it's illegal.

Even in states, like mine, that don't require that children ride in the back, the law "strongly encourages" doing so, whenever possible. My reading is that this means "whenever there's a back seat."

A strong article. One that was very hard to read.

#56 ::: Camilla B ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 08:40 AM:

Long time reader, first time commenter here.

I found this article really difficult to read, not only because of the heart-rending personal stories, but also because of the (to me) incomprehensible difficulties encountered in the manufacture and legislation relating to the use of seat sensor alarms. It was disturbing to think that such a simple device that could save so many lives could be opposed by the car manufacturers. Why? Is it purely because of the risk of legal action in the event that the device doesn't work, or is it that car manufacturers don't want to bear the expense of having to add something to the production line?

It is baffling to me that someone could know they have in their power the very simple means to prevent many, if not all of these deaths, and not hasten to exercise that power. I really, really hope they reconsider.

And a response to a previous poster:
@p mac (#26):

One obvious moral: if you have backwards-facing child seat, use the front seat. The airbag isn't going to do any damage then. (Talk about laws with unintended consequences.)

Rear-facing child car seats should never be used in a front seat equipped with an airbag, because of the danger of the airbag or its housing hitting the child's head and causing serious injury or death. Even if this doesn't occur, the impact of the airbag against the back of the seat can have extremely serious consequences for the occupant.

#57 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 08:49 AM:

That's a heartbreaking article.

It occurs to me that it would be a simple matter to incorporate warning bells or a buzzer to indicate that the seat belts are still engaged when the ignition is turned off. (Don't all child seats require the seat belts to be secured?) Perhaps that's something that should be required in new vehicles.

#58 ::: Bruce Adelsohn ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 08:56 AM:

I wish I could say I believe it could never happen to me. But we have a cautionary tale in our family that suggests it could -- and has kept it from coming about. My grandfather took my uncle, then in a pram, to a Brooklyn Dodgers game, and my grandmother, concerned about his ability to attend to the baby, came out later (without his knowledge, of course), found him at the game, and walked off with their son.

That's been firmly in my mind for the past decade, though we've mostly gotten to the point where I can rely on the kids to know where they are, and to speak up for themselves.

#59 ::: Connie H. ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 08:59 AM:

Powerful article, well worth recommending far and wide.

I'm definitely forgetful, especially because I stress easily. I've learned to pay attention when I get a feeling that I might have forgotten something, even if it threatens to make me late -- in my case, it's the lizard brain trying to help when the higher function brain has missed a detail.

#60 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 09:10 AM:

Patrick: Wow. That was a really powerful piece.

Camilla: One problem here is that working out which safety devices make sense and which don't is not trivial. For example, in this case, car seats and airbags (both good things for safety) have overlapped to create/worsen a different safety problem. (And the same happened for airbags; average-height men (me) benefit from airbags partly at the cost of the impact (literally) on very short women and children.)

Would a sensor for the back seat really help, and really be worthwhile? I don't think you can know that based on the article; what fraction of those cases would be prevented by such a sensor/alarm, and what other problems might be caused? This is a horrible accident, but also a quite rare one, probably because most of the time, not all the holes on the "swiss cheese" align. That is, most of the time, you start to get out of the car and then notice the baby, or someone sees the baby in the car fifteen minutes after you've gone inside and breaks the window or calls 911, or the car doesn't get hot enough to kill the child and you find your screaming child when you head out for lunch, or the daycare calls you and you go get your kid out of the car an hour after you park, before the car gets really hot, or whatever.

Some tragedies aren't preventable. It's probably possible to do something to prevent this particular one, but I honestly doubt that a widespread effort to do so will decrease the number of child deaths in the country by as much as, say, requiring some kind of alarm on private swimming pools.

Indeed, I think the desire to fix this, while sensible, is also a manifestation of our desire to believe that tragedy can be avoided. Some can, but not all--no matter what defenses we install in our lives, some tragedies will get past us. IMO, we probably need to be more focused on decreasing child deaths that occur more often, rather than the rare-but-spectacularly-awful ones like the one described here.

And my retreat into analytical mode is, of course, also a way of insulating myself from the all-too-plausible horror of this story. I'm just more comfortable in analytical mode than in burn-the-witches mode or something-must-be-done-today mode.

#61 ::: Naomi Parkhurst ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 09:20 AM:

Steve C. @57 I don't think that would be a workable sort of alarm. The car seats I've used have all been designed so that there is some part which remains strapped into the car unless you need to use the seat in a different car. For infants, the removable baby carrier is latched into a base which remains belted into the car at all times. For forward-facing seats, the seat is strapped in at all times. In both cases, the child is held in place with straps that are part of the car seat or infant carrier.

Also, more recent cars have what is called the LATCH system, which involves metal loops buried inside the seat that the car seat is clipped to, in which case the seat belts are not involved in car seat use.

#62 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 09:22 AM:

D.Bratman #38: The answer is to make it harder to forget.

geek anachronism #37: Mind you, check the back seat needs to be a rule for me now (well, soon).

Put something you'll always have with you in the back seat (where the child cannot get at it) -- jacket, handbag, cell phone. Look at your automated "do I have everything?" moves, whatever they check for needs to go there.

Also, what Cynthia Wood #39 says, make a habit of checking. Realize that you'll have a hard time seeing something you are used to seeing, unless you focus -- it's how perception works.

My mother used rhymes to make sure she checked everything. (She still forgot me in a car once, but I was seven and cars back then weren't designed to lock someone in.)

#63 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 09:29 AM:

I live in the DC area and subscribe to the Post. I've recycled the rest of the Sunday paper but have left the magazine section, face down, on the table, because of this article. But I don't think I'm going to read it. There was an incident like this where I lived when my oldest was an infant and I felt all too strongly how it could have happened to me. The kids are teenagers now and I still don't think I can read it.

I liked Weingarten's Joshua Bell article from a couple of years ago. I take Metro to work, and have paid more attention to street musicians ever since. I also liked the Great Zucchini article someone mentioned earlier. It's funny, because I tend not to read Weingarten's regular humor stuff because, for me, it too often edges over the line into mean-spirited. But I find his feature articles dead-on and full of humanity.

#64 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 09:29 AM:

albatross #60: Would a sensor for the back seat really help, and really be worthwhile?

I'm sceptical about these things because IME they train you not to pay attention. Going by anectodal evidence, I never forgot to switch off the lights when I parked the car, until I got a car with a "you left the lights on" warning signal -- then I forgot it once or twice a year, and got a set of starter cables.

#66 ::: Pendrift ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 09:46 AM:

Amazing, powerful article. Thank you for the heads-up, Patrick.

I started reading the comments on WaPo and had to stop after a few pages because it was upsetting to see how some people insisted on missing the point and I'm rubbish at skipping comments. Thankfully the ugly voices were in the minority.

#67 ::: David Manheim ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 10:06 AM:

The design problem with these cars is manifold, and while the law of unintended consequences is relevant, we also have the ability to introspect and redesign. We know that cars could be equipped with these sensors in the back seat. Or we could have a device that could disable the front seat airbag when a car-seat was there. A modification of the seat-belt lock used for car-seats could be modified to also disable the airbag, which would mean that back seat airbags could be developed in a way that would be safe for children.

Engineers are not required to take classes in ethics. I don't understand why.

#68 ::: pedantka ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 10:10 AM:

I remember my last term of undergrad: I would routinely return to my car after 10+ hour studio classes and find that I had left my keys either in the ignition or on the driver's seat. Sometimes the door was even unlocked. In the part of the city the car was parked in, it's a small miracle that it never got stolen.
I can see myself doing the same thing with a child far, far too easily. Thankfully, I have given up driving, but this is a reminder to be more vigilant about the bus/train/subway equivalent if and when the time comes.

#69 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 10:22 AM:

Gavin@#15: Found it! The official excerpt in the WaPo is here.

Just how desperate are they? I designed an experiment to find out. Now, I know some of you might call this experiment cruel. However, others might call it very cruel.

#70 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 10:29 AM:

Weingarten is a very funny man, but his online chat at the Washington Post site on Tuesdays (FAQ here) is much funnier than his column, and more interesting.

Today at noon, he's hosting a special chat about the article in last Sunday's magazine.

Incidentally, I was annoyed by the Joshua Bell article, too. Had Bell been there when people were leaving work rather than rushing to get there, thousands would have stopped to listen and there would have been no story.

#71 ::: J.K.Richard ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 10:43 AM:

That is an amazing piece of journalism. I couldn't handle reading something like that

#72 ::: Jenn ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:00 AM:

No, you really did need to introduce that one. My daughter is well past the age that she would not be able to get herself out of the backseat, but I do not need any more nightmares, thank you very much.

#73 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:14 AM:

I couldn't bear to read it. With or without "informed analysis" and reader comments by cruel morons, stories of dead children are a perennial in journalism (it used to be diptheria, starvation, etc.).

Phoenix news stations (as "local" as we get, here in Prescott) have their full share of hyperthermia in car back seats, drownings in swimming pools, and toddlers run over in driveways. The cruelest story, last week, involved a baby dragged from its bassinet and killed by the family chow dog when the mother took a quick trip to the bathroom. (Accompanying photo: chow-friendly bumper sticker on their car.)

Most of us are forgetful, all are mortal -- with the young especially vulnerable -- and I just don't like to see journalists draw kudos for dealing with the subject. (Yes, it's a cranky personal response.)

#74 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:31 AM:

I don't have kids, Praise be to Allah, in all of Her many Names. But I'm sitting here thinking, "What would I do?" Lots of mechanical hacks come to mind, in the nature of the car-seat sensor designed by the NASA guy.

But it occurs to me that a more reliable strategy would be a variant of my key-keeping strategy: I never exit a lockable door without my key in my hand. I think what I would employ had I kids and a car would be to get in the habit of closing the car door and then looking through the windows to examine the front seat AND the back seat thoroughly. Do this Every Single Time, and it streamlines into automated muscle memory, and feels weird if I don't do it.

Sigh. Those poor people. I can only begin to imagine what that would be like, and I'm really grateful I'll never have a chance to experience it.

#75 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:36 AM:

p mac @26: Powerful story, with a powerful ending.

One obvious moral: if you have backwards-facing child seat, use the front seat. The airbag isn't going to do any damage then. (Talk about laws with unintended consequences.)

And tuck a print-out of the article in the glove-box, so if a cop stops you and sets to write you a ticket, you can just hand it to him/her to read.

#76 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:42 AM:

That was a very powerful article. Thank you. Oftentimes I think that the presentations in the local news play up the leaving the baby in the car aspect while discounting any sense of empathy. It's a scare story for ratings. This is a good and sobering look at how it can happen.

The problem with the laws regarding leaving children in cars is that it doesn't take intent into account. I think that the laws serve a purpose for the people who would intentionally leave a child in the car while they just go to do a bit of shopping or get a coffee. The prosecutor who decided not to press charges because of the situation was a mensch. The one who did is not someone I would like to meet.

(Yes, I was irked by the pop-evolution crap, but it was minor and the rest of the article was good.)

David Manheim @ 67:

I don't know about all universities, but when I was studying to be an engineer I was certainly required to take an ethics class. One of the problems here is that if you don't know there's a problem to begin with then you don't consider solutions to it. Also, remember cases like Challenger and the Pinto. The failure there was not with one person who may or may not have been considering the consequences; it was a result of the interaction of multiple people with different pressures applied to them and different goals.

Faren Miller @ 73:

I think the issue here, as I said before, is that this is a humanizing story; it seeks to inform and understand. Local news stations are in it for the shock and the ratings, deliberately putting a barrier between us and them, smugly saying something like, "Look at what these other people did. Isn't horrible? Isn't it titillating? You're much better than them. See? You could never do that." The takeaway from this article, on the other hand, is that we're all human, we're all fallible, horrible things can happen, but that we can and should understand. We shouldn't blindly believe that we could never do that, just because it sounds so unbelievable.

#77 ::: elsongarino ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:43 AM:

Weingarten in his own 'defense' re the Josh Bell piece:

It does seem to be all too de rigeur to hop on the criticism wagon when someone (Weingarten, Krugman, you name him/her) wins a prestigious prize. So much so that the winner himself in this case senses a need to preempt it all.

#78 ::: Cat Meadors ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:49 AM:

I do wish you'd put a warning up there. Not everyone needs to read this article. (I already read it last night. It wasn't easy.)

Rather than a mandatory seat-sensor, I'd rather see that other device mentioned in the article - something cheap, efficient, and aftermarket, so the auto manufacturers couldn't kill it. Unfortunately, you'd have to find someone to make it, and like they said - with the way liability works, nobody's going to do that. (Also the main reason why you'll never see that magic instantly-stop-sawing-when-you-hit-flesh thingy on tablesaws, even though it works.) For now, I'll go with the checklist, I guess.

Two random things about Weingarten - he used to be Dave Barry's editor, and some time after the Josh Bell stunt, he found out that it had already been done, in almost exactly the same way, in Chicago in 1930. Two of the songs were even the same. (There was also some connection between their violins, beyond both being Strads, but I don't remember what.) Neither of those things are meant to validates his artistic worth - he comes up with something good three or four times a year, but otherwise most of his columns only look good because they're printed on the other side of the XX-Files, which is the Worst Column Ever. (If you don't know it, trust me - you don't want to. Unless you like reading about how women are stupid and incompetent and how they somehow very occasionally manage to overcome their inherent stupid incompetency to triumphantly accomplish things a five-year-old should be able to handle. Argh. Or is it AACK?)

#79 ::: Lance Weber ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:00 PM:

A couple of thoughts after (not) sleeping on it last night:

On my Honda Pilot (one of the cars referenced in the story), the passenger airbag is disabled when it detects that there is weight in the seat but not enough to be a mature adult. This is accompanied by a bright indicator light on the dash. So some cars are obviously designed to allow small children and car seats in the front.

One reason I think this never happened to us - both the Pilot and the Odyssey have a flip down mirror used just for observing the back seat. We always use it when the kids are in the car, even today when they're 8 & 12*. When they were babies, we used a second mirror that draped over the back seat and faced the back facing baby seat, so that you could see the baby even if it was facing away.

* On a lighter note, the family has come to refer to this gadget as MonkeyVision.

#80 ::: Lance Weber ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:05 PM:

Actually, my wife just pointed out that our first Hondas (both Odyssey and Pilot) didn't have MonkeyVision, we bought mountable mirrors and installed them. So this innovation is only about three years old, much newer than I originally thought.

#81 ::: debcha ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:15 PM:

In terms of a technological fix for this, consider the following - the number of deaths is 15-25 a year. Given how small a number this is relative to the total number of trips taken by young children every year (in the millions? tens of millions?), I'm not sure that it would be possible to design a safety device that would alleviate this problem without inadvertently introducing some greater cost.

#82 ::: Noelle ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:19 PM:

I couldn't read this entire article - though I think it's well written and was probably a very difficult piece to write. I sure couldn't do it.

I know someone whose daughter was killed when the girls grandparents accidently backed over the child in their pick up. The family had been out for a walk together, and the daughter had drifted out of reach. The grand parents never fully recovered from it.

I think these deaths fall into the category of tragedy. And tragedy can vist anyone, at any time. The article does make that terrifyingly clear.

#83 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:21 PM:

David: "Engineers are not required to take classes in ethics. I don't understand why."

I suspect you've not spoken with many engineers before you said that. I am an engineer and take an "ethics in engineering" refresher course every two years at work, and took one at my university as well.

RE: the article.

My mother left the door open one spring day, and I took my 18 month old butt out on a walk down the street. She had no idea where I was until she frantically ran outside and spotted me running gleefully down the road as hard as I could go.

Another time she forgot me in a grocery store (she assumed I would follow like I always did, only this time I was looking at some comic books or something and didn't see her leave).

Numerous times she left me and my brother (when we were older) in a hot car with the windows down when she went shopping.

Then there was the time she let me ride beside her in the car, standing up on the seat, when someone rear-ended the car.

Any of those situations could have turned into a tragedy, or in today's society, a visit from the Child Protective Services at the least. I wasn't her first, or even her second child; was she a negligent mom? I'd vehemently disagree with that verdict, but like everyone else she made decisions that could have turned out very, very badly for me (or presumably one of my 3 siblings since I doubt I was the only one these things happened to). I read these stories and think "but for the grace of God, that could have been me or one of my brothers/sister".

I don't feel that the courts (or 'Child Services')should punish these parents for their mistakes; they will punish themselves EVERY SINGLE DAY FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES.

#84 ::: Ewan ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:28 PM:

All of us who work on memory mechanisms know the feeling of having our memories fail and knowing something about *why* - but being unable to fix it, yet.

Just yesterday I drove all the way to daycare - despite being late for a meeting - before realising that my wife had helped out and taken our 4 month-old that morning instead of me. And both he and our 6 year-old have been left in the car. Only for a minute or two, each time... but had those holes lined up? Yeah.

#85 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:35 PM:

I'm absent-minded, and have left all sorts of valuable items everywhere. That said, this is one of the most affecting stories I've read recently.

Memory is imperfect, and we do construct narratives about the world.

#86 ::: Madeline Ashby ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:48 PM:

Halfway through the article, I wondered: "How many of these deaths could have been prevented by a simple sticker adhered to the dash, reading Look behind you.?"

Like Patrick I'm astonished at the quality and depth of the reporting, here. This is what investigative journalism should be: not always sexy, but necessary, informative, and layered.

#87 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 12:54 PM:

One time...ONE TIME!...I forgot to check the temperature of the metal buckle on the car seat.

My daughter got a 2nd degree burn from the buckle.

People are fallible.

#88 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:06 PM:

Madeline Ashby @86"How many of these deaths could have been prevented by a simple sticker adhered to the dash, reading Look behind you.?"

Hard to say. Maybe a few, maybe none. Humans are excellent at trimming stimulus input and being on the lookout for new information. Although such a reminder might help develop a useful habit, the chances are that the urgency would fade and the alertness would lapse, especially under stress.

#89 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:06 PM:

Madeline Ashby @ 86:

Sadly, not that many. Do you ever notice the warnings on the sun visor in your car or road signs you pass every day? If it's something that we see all the time, or something that we're not looking for given what we're doing, we'll ignore it. That's human nature. Even so, if it helps then it's probably worth doing.

#90 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:33 PM:

David Manheim @67: "Engineers are not required to take classes in ethics."

As others have said: I'm not sure where you got that piece of information from, but at my undergraduate institution it's certainly false -- we had a full one-quarter required class on it. And on things that are just as important, like "this is how tragic mistakes happen".

One of the things that we also learned in a lot more of our classes than that one is that things will fail, and that these failures need to be accounted for at a fundamental level in the design. Your sensor-based airbag ideas that you present as "obvious failures of ethics" not to include are things that I would be exceptionally wary of on those grounds -- do you really want to risk a hundred people's lives on the gamble that the sensor will always work right in both directions? Even in a two-decade-old car that's been poorly maintained and treated badly?

#91 ::: Madeline Ashby ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:34 PM:

I think you're right, Keith and Debbie. What's needed is a reliable but unpredictable disruption in stimuli. Even an Arduino carseat that phoned your mobile every time you left too much weight in the seat could still be ignored. And anything built into the car can fail if you switch cars, which residents of two-car households do often enough. Short of having the car speak to you, I still think that any possible solutions will involve simple mnemonics -- the comment upthread about leaving a purse/mobile in the backseat to train the brain, for example.

#92 ::: Robin Z ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:51 PM:

I would say something insightful, except that I can't stop wondering what "rhododontonychal" means.

#93 ::: Matt the Geek ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 01:57 PM:

>>do you really want to risk a hundred people's lives on the gamble that the sensor will always work right in both directions?

And if you think this is some abstract question, my car frequently thinks someone is trying to hotwire it while I am driving it 65 MPH down the highway.

#94 ::: Matt the Geek ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 02:09 PM:

I suppose I should clarify for those prone to worry about the safety even of internet strangers.

When the engine is running all that happens is a light comes on, but if the engine is not running it won't start. Thankfully, it doesn't go from running to not running.

#95 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 02:37 PM:

Reality check time (for me): Was anyone else slightly creeped out by some of the information about Lyn Balfour? I know I have some internal filters running that most people here don't, but two things jumped out at me from the story: (1) she appears to have gone thru a life-changing experience without changing very much; and (2) she seems to be awfully gung-ho about pregnancy -- three babies by artificial insemination, and thinking about a fourth (albeit for altruistic reasons). NB: I am emphatically NOT of the "it could never happen to me" persuasion, given the number of coping strategies I've developed over the years to help with my own memory issues.

#96 ::: SeanH ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 02:37 PM:

#92: Since it was used to modify "Nature", my official guess off the top of my head is that it means "red-toothed".

#97 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 02:40 PM:

Robin Z @ 92: I can't stop wondering what "rhododontonychal" means

Rosy-toothed, I suppose, as in "red in tooth and claw". See also: "rhododactylous".

#98 ::: debcha ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 02:40 PM:

Robin Z (#92): From the context and etymological clues, I'm guessing 'red in tooth and claw.'

David Manheim (#67): You are correct in that engineers are not required to take a class in ethics. However, at least in the US, accredited engineering programs* are required to document that their graduating students 'demonstrate an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility.' This criterion is normally, but not always, satisfied with a course requirement.

Incidentally, taking a course in ethics is hardly a guarantee of future ethical behaviour.

*I'd have linked directly to the criteria, but the last time I linked to a PDF, my posting went off into moderation limbo.

#99 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 02:56 PM:

Lee @ 95, it seemed apparent to me that her persona in interviews isn't entirely what's going on underneath. That was discussed in the article, and described as an element of her psychology as a soldier. At first it confused me, but once it was connected with her being a soldier, it made sense to me.

Did you read the segment that begins Lyn Balfour's Ruckersville home is fragrant with spice candles and the faintly sweet feel of kitsch?

I don't think three kids makes her "awfully gung-ho about pregnancy." Three is a pretty normal number of kids. And the artificial insemination happens because she and her husband want kids, but he's away in Iraq most of the time, so it's not easy to get pregnant in the standard fashion. That seems like a good solution to a problem, to me.

So no, I wasn't creeped out.

#100 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 03:11 PM:

debcha @ 98:

It is, of course, true that taking an ethics class is no guarantee of ethical behavior, but that's true of any class and its stated goals. What an ethics class often does is present a range of situations that you wouldn't necessarily think about (or think are obvious), ranging from little things about trade secrets, to large things like the failures that led to famous disasters, to how you approach dealing with a problem that you've discovered has the potential for harm. I know I made fun of some of the content of the ethics class, particularly some of the 'obvious' stuff, but it's already informed my thinking and behavior at my job. It's not something that stops as soon as you're out of class.

#101 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 03:12 PM:

To keep this in perspective (because the deaths were so horrible to think about), I looked up the reported causes of death for children under 1 year old on the CDC's website, here.

Drilling down (play with the tools for awhile, they reward attention), 112,435 children less than one year old died between 2002-2005 (inclusive). Of those, about 3.6% (4026) were victims of accidental death. (The overwhelming majority of causes of death at this age are natural, I guess as health problems you were born with catch up with you one way or another.)

With a little work, you can find a drill-down to the causes of accidental death in children less than one year old in those years. The majority of these involve babies suffocating in their bedding. (Looking this up is going to force a change in how we take care of our new baby; that's the *largest* cause of death about which we can do anything, 2728 suffocation cases total, 1870 of them in bed!)

I believe the hot-car-exposure deaths appear under "Natural Environment." Click on the red bar, and you see that the majority of them (49/74) involve exposure to natural heat. If I'm reading this correctly, that should include all the stories of kids locked in cars, getting trapped in trunks, as well as any cases of kids just keeling over from heatstroke on very hot days. (Does this look right? Anyone know if I'm misunderstanding something here?) If I am reading it right, this is 50 such tragedies over the course of four years.

I don't how consistent the coding is in different places. (There's an "unspecified cause" category that might also be catching some or all of these. Or maybe some get coded under some kind of homicide, though if so, it's not having a large impact on the homicide totals!) But right off the top, you can see that these tragedies account for about 49/112,435 = 0.0004 of the deaths of infants in these years, and 49/4026 = 1.2% of all accidental deaths of infants less than one year old.

From this CDC site, I get a total under-one population in the years 2002-2005 of about 16.1 million people[0]. This means that

a. Accidental deaths happened to about 0.001 (about one in ten thousand) infants.

b. Deaths from natural heat exposure happened to about one in one hundred thousand infants.

Another way to look at this: In those years, an infant was something like 56 times more likely to suffocate[1], 11 times more likely to die in a car accident, and 5 times more likely to drown, than to die from natural heat.

Now, this can happen to older kids, too, though it starts getting mitigated at some point, because older kids both have better internal heat regulation, and can get themselves out of a hot car even if it's locked. But similar numbers are available for older kids--exposure to excessive natural heat accounted for 73 deaths in the 1-4 age range in those years. By comparison, 2044 kids died in motor vehicle accidents, 1833 drowned, 891 died in fires, and 549 died of suffocation (mostly from choking or getting something around their necks).

I guess my point in all this is that the deaths described in the story were horrible and wrenching, and the story was very well written. But this is still journalism's distorting filter on the world, magnifying horrible but rare events that probably have less impact on the world than the more common ones. I'm not sure how much worse losing your child in this kind of tragedy would be than losing her to a car wreck or having her drown in your swimming pool; both appear to be much, much more likely.

More broadly, I suspect the CDC site is a much, much better guide to what risks face your children and you than news stories, with their man-bites-dog orientation.

[0] This is somewhat fuzzy, because I don't know whether the death reporting and population statistics use exactly the same way of deciding ages--death reporting is going to use age at death, but population reporting will presumably use age as of some reference date. But it won't change the result in any substantial way.

[1] If you have an infant, today, go make sure her bedding isn't loose in a way that would allow suffocation or entrapment. Really. According to the available data, this is about 40 times as important as whatever tricks you've thought up to avoid leaving your infant in the hot car.

#102 ::: Sarah S. ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 03:22 PM:

albatross @ #101

And in addition to the bedding, make sure everyone--mom, dad, babysitters, big brothers and sisters, scoffing grandparents, EVERYONE--knows that babies should be put down to sleep on their backs.

And some studies have shown that babies who sleep with pacifiers have a lower incidence of SIDS.

And now I have to stop reading the dead babies post.

#103 ::: Gavin Edwards ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 03:27 PM:

Sumana @69: Thanks! Now I can share the punchline I found the other night, which is that out of curiosity, I Googled one of the publicists mentioned in the column (the last one, Alicia Levine, who shares a memorable story about her entrance to an intramural basketball game).

I found her resume, which includes this line: "Applied innovative methods to secure additional premium coverage with The Washington Post Magazine."

I bet she fiddled with that credit for a long time.

#104 ::: sisuile ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 03:34 PM:

This is a hard article. Simple mnemonics start to break down under stress, though. I'm not sure there is a good way to solve this one, short of putting the kid into the front seat. My 2005 Focus has the ability to turn off the passenger airbag, and a weight sensor. I know that the weight sensor is set at 80 lbs, because that was the point when the 10 yr old was heavy enough for it to register.

These tragedies are as old as time. The medieval English term was "death by misadventure" and the coroner rolls are full of them. Hell yeah, it can happen to me - it happened to me a few times, when the parents thought the other one had picked me up/dropped me off/taken me home. I survived. And I know it can happen to me with my theoretical children. It's something we have to live with.

#105 ::: Cat Meadors ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 03:42 PM:

If you've read the article, I also recommend reading today's chat too. It doesn't add a whole lot, but what it does add is valuable. (A couple of backstories, some clarification of points, and a little more about Lyn Balfour.)

Also, I'd forgotten about those mirror things, and I had one as long as my kid was in a rear-facing seat. They're about as distracting as a windshield-mount GPS - I wouldn't say you CAN'T forget the baby if you've got one, but it does make it harder. (But not helpful if you've already moved to a front-facing seat.)

#106 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 03:50 PM:

A built-in breathalyzer which would shut off the ignition on the car, would save a LOT more lives--but I haven't heard a general demand that that be mandated car equipment.

As for reliability... how many tens of millions of cars are in daily use in the world? Failsafes can fail in all sorts of ways, and the more equipment one adds to something, the more opportunity there is for failure.

Or--I am childless. I've driven hundreds of thousand of miles. I can't remember having EVER been the driver of a car with a baby or small child in it, EVER. I don't WANT a mandated child-monitor in a car which I depend on for -my- transportation needs--not only do I not want the direct cost, I don't want the additional complexity and opportunity for something to break down and have to get fixed and make my car unavailable becaue something isn't working that in my nearly 40 years of driving I have never had ANY use for!

My car failed the inspection earlier this year the first time I tried to get it inspected, because the panel light was on for the airbag. Airbags aren't much benefit to people my size--seatbelts are a lot less hazardous to small drivers and I use the seatbelt. The cost of the airbag increases the cost of the car... and fails to provide ME much of anything useful. It's one more thing to go wrong, and in the case of my car, wasted my time and effort and cost me money to get investigated... andthe cause was a random sensor glitch, apparently, or in the vernacular, "noise." -- A random "failure" which wasn't really a failure at all, except the sensor glitched and set off the panel light... which stays on until hauling the car in to get looked at, which is an automatic expense.

My feeling about baby-on-board sensors is that they should be available as OPTIONAL equipment, much as those "baby on board" sign some years ago. For that matter, a dangly object by the driver saying "baby on board" would probably be a much lower tech, much more reliable, much less expensive to everyone ELSE, solution to the issue of people forgetting there is a small child in the back seat!

Forcing things more complicated than the e.g. those despicable so-called childproof caps (they wouldn't have stopped me as a two year old if I -really- wanted to get into something, and before I was four I was reading words, and interpeting arrows earlied than that, meaning the the childproof cap wouldn't, again, have stopped me from opening any bottle...) on the public for a tragic but small-compared=to-drive-drivers, dead babies from shaken baby syndrome, underweight failing to thrive babies from unhealthy eating by girls and women brainwashed by emaciated models and celebrities paraded as role models... those are much worse social problems... for that matter, I wonder what the injury rate are from people getting lacerated by all those sealed heavy plastic packages the consumer goods end to be packaged in, and what sort of frustration rate there is due to bottles that a significant percentage of the population has trouble opening because of childproof caps.

Again, the death of a child from being forgotten in a car is tragic--but the numbers are small compared to the yearly statisttics of dead teenagers from speeding and/or drunken driving, and the toll from adult drunk drivers.

#107 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 04:21 PM:

Thanks, albatross. The numbers on motor vehicle accident fatalities are particularly important, and should really be included somewhere in story like this one.

A number of commenters here reading this article have indicated that they're now inclined to put small kids in the front seat. While the danger involved with airbags hitting car seats (facing either way) has already been noted, what I *haven't* yet seen noted is that the front seat is inherently a more dangerous place to be a passenger. This Science Direct abstract suggests that sitting in the back seat reduces passenger fatality risk by almost 40%.

So if you have on the order of 20 deaths per year from infants left in cars, and over 2000 deaths per year from infants in motor vehicle accidents, then the car-accident risk is over 100 times greater than the hot-car risk, in general. Not all of the car accidents involve infants *inside* the cars, but assuming a high percentage of them do, the risk of a baby dying by being forgotten in the back should be significantly lower under most circumstances that the risk of a baby dying because he or she has been moved up to the front seat prior to a crash.

#108 ::: debcha ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 04:27 PM:

Keith S (#100): I phrased that badly. I agree with you about the value of ethics courses and I certainly believe in mandatory ethics instruction for engineering students. And what you wrote would, I'm sure, hearten anyone who's ever taught such a course.

But I think that whether someone actually behaves ethically when put to the test is also a question of the surrounding culture. David Manheim (#67) attributed the lack of technological solutions to this problem to engineers not having taking ethics courses (which is largely erroneous). The reality is that we don't have these technologies because we, as a culture, have decided that they are not worth it.

Like albatross (#101), I had gone and explored other causes of death for children, specifically vehicle-related deaths, although I didn't play with WISQARS today. In 2005, 1,335 children were killed and 184,000 were injured in collisions, as passengers (this doesn't include injuries/fatalities as a pedestrian, such as the evocatively-named 'frontovers' and 'backovers'). It's the leading cause of death if you are under 14.

I think that these numbers give you a much better perspective on the risks of forgetting your child in a car. It also gives you a (not very flattering) perspective on what automobile-related risks to our children we are collectively willing to accept.

#109 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 04:29 PM:

One suggestion I heard for keeping track of babies was to tie a string from your seatbelt to the baby seat as you fasten your seatbelt. That way, when you unfasten the seatbelt, there's the string, tangling things up and reminding you.

On our second or third drive with my baby son, we forgot to fasten him into his car seat. (The seat was fastened into the car.) We got to our destination, took one look, and resolved to do better.

All rationality aside, this was a very hard article to read. I got home this evening, still musing on it. My husband had been to an appointment with a child psychologist about our son, who is struggling a little to settle into the Netherlands. He said one of the things that they mentioned was the probability that my own struggles with Dutch were influencing my son's experience.

Even that little bit of culpability brought tears to my eyes.

#110 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 05:24 PM:

abi @109 That's odd. Thousands of immigrant experiences in the US seem to indicate that, whatever issues the adults in a family may have with culture shock, the kids don't share them. They may have their own culture adjustments problems, but... I don't know the guy, so maybe he's not a nitwit leaning on the blame-the-foreign-mommy crutch, but it's not like you don't like being where you are, doing what you're doing with people you care for.

#111 ::: Holly P. ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 05:53 PM:

I don't have children yet, but I know I'm this kind of person. I forget things all the time; once, I left our cat shut in the spare room for six hours. He was fine, but I will have to be very careful.

Paula Lieberman @106 --

As one might imagine, given my forgetfulness, I'm strongly in favor of an automatic safety measure, like a seatbelt warning, that would ding or not lock the car doors or in some way give a warning if there was a weight in the back seat.

I do not think that this kind of built-in warning is in any way comparable to an automatic breathalyzer; one would have to breathe into the breathalyzer every time one started the car. It would be intrusive in the extreme. And I imagine a breathalyzer would be far more prone to problems than a simple force transducer. The technology for the backseat alarm is already there, and tested, and even standard safety equipment in many new cars. It turns off the passenger-side airbag if there's a child in the seat.

Of course, one could make the argument that all safety equipment is intrusive. Maybe the breathalyzer should be standard safety equipment too. But I don't think an aftermarket addition would be anywhere near as useful, because I think the standard narrative -- only bad parents forget their children -- would preclude purchase in a lot of cases.

#112 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 06:11 PM:

I don't have children, never will. Which is just as well, cos I could totally forget a child in the back seat. I could forget a child strapped to my back, if it comes to that. I am not your first choice of babysitter.

If I had to deal with caring for a baby, and had a car, I think after reading this, what I'd do first is buy a club thing. For the steering wheel, that is. Then I'd clean out the car, nothing in it I cared about, nothing in the glovebox, give the stereo to the deserving poor.

Then I'd never lock it or roll up the windows tight ever again. I haven't worked out what to do about rain, or any of the other reasons for shutting up tight when you leave the car, but none of those bells, whistles, alarms, reminders, engrained habits of checking, none of it would matter if I weren't already right then thinking about the baby.

#113 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 06:11 PM:

abi @ 109 and pericat @ 110:

Moving from one country to another does come with a certain number of issues. I gather that I was a little older than abi's son when I had my experience with it, and the language was still English, but it still affected me. Whether it was bullying by the other kids for being different, a bit of homesickness or something else, it still shaped who I am today. I wouldn't change it for the world, but it wasn't necessarily an easy transition.

#114 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 06:22 PM:

Words do not fail me, and I really wish they did. Because here I am with a huge pile of words in my head, all of them discomfiting.

I will say this in response to some of the commentary above: if anyone should be forced at gunpoint to read this article, then it's not parents— not even those who have yet to experience a teachable memory failure in relation to their own children.

If anyone, it's prosecutors and judges who should be made to read it.

#115 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 06:39 PM:

KeithS @ 113 I'm only thinking the source of kids' issues with adjusting are not likely to be because one parent is not yet fluent in the language. Especially if that parent is basically happy with the move.

Also I think moms are easy targets when theorizing about why a child is doing or not doing something.

(We moved a lot, too, when I was very young. I used to get dreadfully homesick. Couldn't quite work out what for.)

#116 ::: Chanticleer ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 06:42 PM:

I believe that this could happen to me, or to anyone. And the same goes for any number of atrocities. You can be vigilant and intelligent and careful, but that only goes so far.

So how do you go on normally, knowing that all of these horrors happen to people just like you, and though you can prevent most of them most of the time, you can't make yourself safe from them? Do you just try not to think about it?

#117 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 06:55 PM:

Chanticleer, #116: Are you male or female, IYDMMA? The reason I inquire is that if you're male, this may have been your first exposure to this sort of "the horror could happen to me at any time" threat.

If you're female, you deal with it in much the same way you deal with the threat of rape: you do what you can in the way of taking precautions, you try to bear in mind that it's not as high-probability an event as a lot of other horrible things that could happen to you, you try not to let the fear of it take over your entire life... and you remain aware that if you are one of the people it happens to, a lot of other people will never stop blaming you for it.

#118 ::: mary ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 07:17 PM:

I started reading this earlier, decided it was too painful, then went back and finished it when you linked to it. It's amazing any child survives infancy and toddlerhood. Especially first children: when your first child comes along your autopilot knows nothing about any kid. How many times have you left something in the car? How many times did it result in a tragedy that sucked your life into a black hole of grief? Until you have a kid the worst outcome is the melting of your pint of Cherry Garcia.

When my son was 6 weeks old my brother came to visit. It was 1985 and airbags were new enough that no one was aware of the danger to small people. I always put my son's car seat in the front seat next to me--facing backward because even in 1985 we knew that much--when he and I were in the car. When my husband and I were both in the car our son rode in the back, but we never forgot him for a minute. When my brother came I put the car seat in the back. We drove to a restaurant for lunch, and we were engrossed in conversation--we hadn't seen each other for about a year. I parallel parked, got out, locked the car door, and started to walk away. My brother said "What about the baby?" and I realized I'd forgotten all about him. It shook me up. It never happened again, but I honestly think it can happen to anyone who is deep in thought or conversation. I'd bet people walk away from the car more often than we'd like to believe, get ten steps away and a nagging feeling tells them they're forgetting something. The lucky ones, which is probably almost all of them, turn back and think HolyShitIForgotTheBabyHolyShitNEVERAGAIN.

There's an easy solution: put the kid in the front seat, and disable the airbag. Airbags should have an on/off switch. The passenger-side airbag in my car only activates if it senses a passenger in the seat. I don't know the weight limit, but a heavy bag of groceries doesn't activate it. This is a simple solution--just put a f*cking on/off switch on the airbag and put the kid in the front seat where you can see her.

By the way, back in 1985 we were told that babies should sleep on their stomachs. From the time my son learned to roll over, he rolled onto his back every night. Every night I went into the nursery and turned him over onto his stomach.

#119 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 07:30 PM:

Holly #111

If YOU want that sort of electronic babysitter in a car, YOU put in it as OPTIONAL, much as a LoJack is extra equipment... Your idea of reasonable is completely and utterly unworkable for me, and actually enrages me. Or are you willing to come clean out my car on a twice weekly basis as a free housekeeping service, due to you wanting to impose YOUR ideas of "appropriate" as mandated on people who do no have children, never will have children, keep things in their cars, etc.?!

There are relatively low tech solutions that could be done that would leave other people alone and untrammeled.... such as even some sort of signal when the car's shutoff, if there is a seatbelt extended and latched in the back seat--that one seems reasonable to me, as opposed to "weight in the back seat." If someone has something secured in the back seat with a belt, getting reminded of it is reasonable.

Other possibilities would be a parent device to carry around that has a proximity RF tag-- if out of range of the piece on the child, it would go off, until the person set it to be shut off.... again, that would affect only the people who had gotten the devices and were using them for their children....

#120 ::: moe99 ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 07:39 PM:

Anyone who doesn't think that baby medical advice goes through phases, should look at old Dr. Spock books. Or the example of my father, who practiced as a pediatrician from 1954-69 and then became an anesthesiologist after doing a residency at the Mayo Clinic.

When I had my first child in 1985, he told me I would never be able to nurse because I didn't have big enough breasts. That was the thinking in 1969. When my babies got vomiting and diarrhea, he recommended milk products to soothe their stomachs, exactly the opposite from what my current pediatrician told me.

I have a dear friend who is the founder and director of a nationally recognized children's dance school. She is adamant that placing babies on their backs is absolutely the wrongest thing to do for their muscular development at a very early age--makes turtles out of them--she says.

And, yes, I locked my baby in the car after no. 2 was born and I was going to the store. Luckily it was dark and rainy and I realized as soon as I had walked away that I had done it. But it was very scary and all too close to the other incidents.

#121 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 07:51 PM:

The article has prompted another discussion over at Edge of the West. 46 comments so far there.

#122 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 08:37 PM:

Paula @119 -- I'm at a little bit of a loss as to where your extremely strong feelings are coming from here. I'm not sure where "obsessive compulsive hoarder" comes from; I don't see anything in Holly's post that sounds that way to me.

The tech Holly suggests might not work for a different reason -- when the car seat is left in the car without the baby in it, as a more permanent fixture.

Really, I'm not sure what the best technical solution is here, but I don't see why it should be any harder to turn on and off than child locks, which are standard in pretty much every car these days. I don't have kids or transport kids, so my child locks are turned off for the convenience of the adults who may ride in the back of my car. If and when I do have kids, they're easily turned back on, for the situation where I do need that safety feature

Do you feel this strongly about child locks?

#123 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 08:58 PM:


One issue that I have (not Paula) is that it appears to me that the total number of lives that could be saved by adding this extra technology is quite small--assuming the numbers I looked up are broadly right, we're talking maybe 40 kids a year max, but given the nature of the tragedies we're talking about, probably a lot of them won't be blocked by whatever our technological safeguard is. So maybe we're at 20 kids saved, out of a vulnerable population of 8-10 million, per year.

If we want to add, say, $1000 to the cost of a new car to improve safety, I'm guessing there are dozens of things that we could do which would save a lot more lives, even a lot more kids' lives. Mandating head and side-curtain airbags might be one example, though I'll admit I haven't looked into the question in detail.

My proposal for a low-tech, cheap solution, unlikely to do much harm and maybe able to do a bit of good:

a. Brightly colored bumper-stickers made freely available at the DMV, saying "CHECK ME FOR CHILDREN."

b. A big PR campaign to convince people to peek in the back windows of cars with those bumper stickers, and to call 911 if they see a trapped kid inside.

#124 ::: Throwmearope ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 08:58 PM:

I had a patient come into the ER with a fractured ulna (so-called nightstick fracture). I asked him who hit him and with what. His wife, a baseball bat. But he said he deserved it, because he killed his baby. (And I'm thinking, here's my night going down the toilet. . .)

So I say, "You killed the baby." Seems he put the baby in the car seat on top of his pickup and forgot to put the baby in the truck. Then he drove away at 65 miles an hour.

He got home, his wife went to get the baby out of the truck and no baby. So he says, "Oh, God, I left the baby on the roof of the cab when I drove away." Wife grabs baseball bat out of the truck, breaks his arm.

So I ask if either of them thought about going to look for the baby. Apparently never occurred to either of them.

About 20 minutes later I get a call from the CHP that they found an uninjured abandoned baby in a car seat on the side of the highway. CHP brought the baby in, not a mark on him, skeletal survey (because of the DV against the dad) was negative for any trauma.

But I still called Child Protective Services on the family because stupidity is not a defense. Not just leaving the kid on the roof, but the baseball bat, not retracing his route to see how the baby made out, etc. . .

Which is one of the reasons why I no longer work ER.

#125 ::: Chanticleer ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 09:22 PM:

Lee @116: I'm female, and I feel the same way about rape: most of the time I try to take appropriate precautions, and then not worry too much. But sometimes it's very hard not to worry about it.

Thank you for your advice. Pity there aren't any easy answers, but at least it makes us less prone to victim-blaming.

Thomas @124: ...Wow.

#126 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 09:41 PM:

Please, no standard built-in breathalyzers in cars. There are too many conditions besides alcohol intoxication that will set them off. I knew someone who was asthmatic who was afraid his inhaler would cause him to fail such a test. Sometimes wouldn't use the inhaler when there were widely advertised roadblocks, such as around New Year's Eve, for fear of ending up in the drunk tank. People with diabetes whose blood sugar is too high can set them off as well. And I don't want something else that can go wrong with my car, as mentioned above. I do not drink if I am going to drive. Install them in the cars of people who have gotten a DUI, okay. But please leave my car alone.

#127 ::: RiceVermicelli ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 09:41 PM:

such as even some sort of signal when the car's shutoff, if there is a seatbelt extended and latched in the back seat--that one seems reasonable to me, as opposed to "weight in the back seat." If someone has something secured in the back seat with a belt, getting reminded of it is reasonable.

My carseat is installed in the backseat using the LATCH system (something the government pushed through and insists car makers install), and the vehicle's seat belts are not involved. It is also possible to use the seatbelts to install the seat, but it's much more difficult to set up, and not any safer.

I am not sold on putting a car seat in front, not even rear-facing with the airbags off. Aside from the absence of LATCH installation points in the front seats (my carseat goes in and out of the car 2-3 times a week, depending on who will be picking the baby up from daycare, so ease of installation is a pretty major safety issue), the front buckets don't interact as well with the base of a carseat as the rear bench. Part of a safe installation is getting the seat base snugged as tightly against the seat of the car as possible, and the flat part of the passenger side front seat is just not wide enough for a Britax Maration. The front seat is not as safe as the back for passengers in general. I would break the law if I thought it made my child safer, but I think "put the kid in front" is a facile and unhelpful suggestion. (I also note that it does absolutely nothing for families with more than one kid.)

I don't know what a helpful suggestion would be. Put something you need in the back seat, check the windows, ask your care provider to call at nine if she hasn't seen or heard from you...

#128 ::: dana ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 09:42 PM:

That is a powerful and scary article. I am one of those who is thankful that it hasn't happened to her, rather than knowing that it couldn't, and I can't imagine the horror that those people are going through.

I do have an important piece of information for anyone who is considering putting a baby in the front seat of a car as a response to this, though. The poster who said "if you have backwards-facing child seat, use the front seat. The airbag isn't going to do any damage then" is *absolutely wrong*. Airbags are most dangerous to rear-facing infants. They stand a very real chance of being decapitated if an airbag goes off in the seat they are occupying.

This site:

has more information on this topic. I will look up further statistics if requested, but I really don't want to derail this any further than to say please don't exchange a very small risk for a larger one.

#129 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 09:47 PM:

While turning people from "that couldn't possibly happen to me!" into "I'd better be careful" won't fix the problem, it's still a useful goal. That attitude change is useful for prosecutors and jurors as well as parents. Might even make it possible to market a baby-detector (I agree it shouldn't be a required built-in feature).

But really, how can people believe it couldn't happen to them? Even relatively young people? I haven't had children, and I've never actually left a camera somewhere for any extended period -- but if you ask me if it's *possible*, I'll be saying "of course it is!" instantly if not sooner!

#130 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 10:01 PM:

What about a physical tether, thin but strong, on a self-winding spool, similar to some of the dog leashes I've seen? The spool stays with the driver. Clip the free end to the child's seat, close the door over it with the cable caught between the rear door and the frame, get in the driver's door and again close the door over the cable. There would be a short length of the cable exposed outside the car while it's travelling; as long as it's reasonably smooth and taut, and held firmly by the doors, I wouldn't expect it to pull outwards much.

I'm neither a parent nor a car owner, and only an occasional driver, so I don't know if this is feasible. It's definitely a less expensive and less fallible solution than adding another alarm system to a car.

#131 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 10:11 PM:

David, #129: It's a form of magical thinking. The concept is so horrible that you don't even want to contemplate the possibility that it might happen to you, so you decide (not necessarily on a conscious level) that the people to whom it does happen must have done something so wrong that you could never, ever do it. Then you can convince yourself that it can't happen to you. The bashing that goes on in these cases is people trying desperately to find something wrong (beyond the obvious "left the baby in the car") that the parent did, as a form of self-reassurance.

Honestly, the more I think about this and the more comments I read (here and elsewhere), the more similarities I see between the way these parents are treated and the way rape victims are treated. And I think the root cause is exactly the same.

#132 ::: Ursula L ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 10:21 PM:

But really, how can people believe it couldn't happen to them? Even relatively young people? I haven't had children, and I've never actually left a camera somewhere for any extended period -- but if you ask me if it's *possible*, I'll be saying "of course it is!" instantly if not sooner!

Well, it is really, really low probability that it happens to any one family - at least having the child forgotten in situations where the child is killed. Of the various things to get cautious about, forgetting your child and having the child die is low on the list. Odds are extremely good that it won't happen to them.

It's a bit like seatbelts. Occasionally there is an accident where a seatbelt makes things worse, or being without one makes the situation better. But it's very unlikely, so the smart money is on wearing the seatbelt. Same thing with vaccines.

Parents have a thousand things they protect their kids from every day, and they spend money to protect their kids constantly. But given limited resources, you're better off spending the money on other things to get good protection for your kids, and given limited emotional resources, you're better off using your worry on probable risks, and not freaking out about very low-probability risks.

#133 ::: cajunfj40 ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 10:45 PM:

That's a very powerful article...

I'm already paranoid to the point where I generally won't run back into the house to grab the baby bag if I've already strapped the kid in - out comes the kid, into the house with me.

I can too easily see this happening. It's so frighteningly easy to see.

Technological means can help, but nothing is 100%. And the low numbers (though horrible enough, that is a tiny percentage compared to other avoidable deaths by misadventure related to automobiles) tend to make me think they've already reached ALARP levels of risk for rear-seat infants. (ALARP == As Low As Reasonably Practicable) More things on the car == more things to go wrong too, either through malfunction or non-usage or intentional defeating of devices because it's all just too much hassle/annoyance/nagging.

I like the ritual aspects of always checking, every time you get in and out of the car. Leaving something else that you use every day within 5 minutes of leaving the car back under the baby seat would also be useful. Cellphone or work-badge or similar on the way to work, house keys on the way back, something.

Unfortunately, as the article mentions, humans are fallible. Not even "100% visual inspection" can catch everything...

Not a topic I'll be raising with my wife tonight. One of us having nightmares over Yet Another Thing That Could Go Drastically Wrong is bad enough.

Take care, everyone. Hug any loved ones nearby, think fondly of those that are not. Breathe. Live.

#134 ::: Eric Boyd ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 10:59 PM:

Mandating an electric alert system be added to all *vehicles* is somewhat extreme and would be just one more thing to break. However, what if the alert system from the article was mandated to be added to all *child safety seats* at some point in time? This wouldn't affect any vehicles except those with built-in child seats (not just the LATCH lockdown points, which most cars have these days.) Require sensors in all new carseat models at one year out, subsidize retrofit kits, and have sensors be mandantory for infants, just like car seats are, two or three years out.

Really, all something like this needs is a couple microphones and perhaps an accelerometer- it's the kind of thing that can be put on one chip these days, and it would be dirt cheap in volume if there was a demand imposed by regulation.

If this system can save 10 lives a year, that's about $50 million dollars (at least using the pre-George W Bush statistical value for a human life.) How many carseats are sold a year?

#135 ::: East of Weston ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:02 PM:

I predate car seats. As an infant, my dad made a sudden stop when a kid ran in front of the car and I flew out of my mother's arms into the windshield. I grew up always hearing, this is where you cracked the windshield every time we passed the spot.

Safety devices so often solve a huge problem, only to create new and smaller ones.

I would recommend the chat he did, it really brings more depth to the story and people's motivations.

#136 ::: Tim in Albion ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:02 PM:

I tried to read that, but the WashPo site loads so many ads/images/whatever from so many different sources, my satellite Internet took forever to load it, and Norton went crazy scanning all those external links for threats, so my computer nearly froze solid for several minutes just to get the first page. Not doing that five times, I'm afraid...

#137 ::: Holly P. ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:12 PM:

Paula @119, Caroline @122, albatross @123 --

Being able to keep things in the backseat is definitely important; my husband pointed that out too, and after I'd come down off the "FIX THIS NOW" reaction, I saw his point. And while an alarm could be ignored, that just trains people to ignore it.

After thinking about it some more, I have come to the conclusion that since most new cars can automatically turn off the passenger-side airbag anyway, changing recommendations/regulations to include a note that one should put the carrier in the front seat IF the airbag can be turned off is a much better idea. This also rolls the cost into a pre-existing safety modification.

Eric Boyd @134 --

It would be great to tie this to car seats, but I'm not really sure how it would work. Would it ding when you came to a full stop? That would get pretty irritating in stop & go traffic. I think the important bit is to connect the alarm, if there is one, to the opening of a door, and I'm not sure how a car seat would handle that. However, IANA engineer, so maybe there's a good solution and I'm just not thinking of it.

#138 ::: oldfeminist ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:18 PM:

albatross @ #101, do you really think this story should have focused on more common child safety threats? I'm sure moms and dads have never ever heard about making sure baby sleeps on her back, or to take the blanket out of the crib, or not to let little Elmer touch a hot stove. We need more of those.


The story is not a "Top Ten Childhood Accidents YOU CAN PREVENT" listicle in _Parents Who Have Attenuated Attention Spans And Fourth Grade Reading Levels Because Of Sleep Deprivation And Stress_ magazine. It's a depiction of life's drama -- the tragedy part.

#139 ::: suzanne ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:19 PM:

@ #64

That's interesting. My own experience is exactly the opposite. I used to leave my headlights on at least once or twice a month (yes, I would forget my head in the car too if it weren't screwed on) until I got a car that politely beeped at me if the door opened and they were still on.

Not only did I never leave them on again, I found that it trained me. Now I'm back to a car without an alarm, and every time I go to open the door and get out, I always remember to check that the lights are off.

For me at least, some kind of alarm that lets you know you have a kid in the back seat would be welcome.

#140 ::: Eric Boyd ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:24 PM:

Holly: IANAengineer either, but it doesn't seem like *that* intractable of a problem. I'd think you'd keep the alarm on your keys; if the transponder fob is within 10 feet of the seat, the alert system goes to sleep. For added assurance, add a janitor's keychain belt-reeler.

#141 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:25 PM:

My father is a careful man. When we were kids, he checked, everytime we sat in the car, that we were wearing seatbelts. Everytime. Driving down the driveway to get the mail on the weekend? Seatbelts. It was a bit of a joke--"Yes, dad," we'd say, rolling our eyes. "Of course we are." At that point, it was of-course: do a thing every day, every time, and it becomes automatic. It can't be forgotten, because it is not even a thought to be forgotten, just an action that's done. It's lizard-brain.

I don't know how much older I was when I learned how my aunt had died, or even that she had ever lived. My father doesn't talk about his losses much; his first marriage, his sister's death. He was thirteen, fourteen at the time and she was older, in high school. There was a car accident, foolish drunken teenager nonsense, and she was flung from the car and died. All of the other passengers, seatbelts fastened, survived.

When I was a teenager, stupid with life, I was driving home late. I had just dropped some friends off, and was racing home at 70, 80 miles an hour on freshly paved and gravelled roads. I lost traction, fishtailed, and ended up upside down and backwards in a drainage ditch. I unfastened my seatbelt and crawled out the passenger side window, unhurt.

There is no question that if I hadn't been wearing my seatbelt, I would have died. I wasn't wearing it because I thought, hmm, I'm driving very fast, better be safe. I was wearing it because I always do. Because it was what I was taught to do. A gift from my father, and my aunt.

After reading that article, I think that the only fitting reponse is to learn from it. Several people have already mentioned it--that now, checking the backseat will become part of their routine. No matter how certain they are that the baby is at the babysitter's, or daycare, or with their spouse, they will check every time they get out of the car, as automatic as turning off the ignition and flipping the lock. If our lizard-brains can reliably deliver us unconscious to work when we meant to go buy groceries, then it can also get us to flick our eyes towards the backseat every time we get out of the car even when we're one-hundred percent sure it's empty. If unconscious habit is the enemy, then suborn it.

#142 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:36 PM:

#112 Caroline

Sources of the annoyance--
a) long frustrating day at work
b) Daylight Savings Time, imposed by Do-Gooder Robins/Larks on morning-hating NIGHTOWLS, because "this is GOOD for Society!"
It is the first Monday on this year's DST... if people REALLY think that they should go to work early, get the businesses and establishments to change their work hours, instead of the "make everyone suffer by bogus clock resetting tricks." It's a giant annoying scam, and I still remember the annoyances involved in trying to do analysis on something that was trying to compared power consumption per week of a 23 hour week against a 24 hour week against a 25 hour week--it had a tendency to cause the software to crash, for example, in addition to making for all sorts of normalization problems.... and all because a bunch of yutzes think that people should be getting up and gong to school and work earlier in the morning without actually having them change from "get up at 7:00 AM to "get up at 6:00 AM -- to me that is offensive as:
1) intellectually dishonest, what's gone on is smoke and mirrors and relabeling, the planetary revolution rate doesn't SKIP a hour!
2) making me get up earlier in the morning because people who like to be up and about earlier demand everyone ELSE live on -their- schedule of being up at or before dawn (Morning becomes Elektra, NOT me!)
3) A big fat -scam- which claims to be saving energy etc and in reality instead ups the accident and death rate from groggy drivers whose bodyclocks haven't reset and whose reflexes are off...
c) the general "this benefits this Special Class so everyone else has to live with it" sort of thing--childproof bottlecaps which make a lot of trouble for people who don't have strong grips and good eyes, airbags that kill small drivers and small people in the front passenger seat because the airbags were sized for 6' males not wearing seatbelts and have the jerk [first derivative of force] necessary to keep the large male not wearing a seatbelt in reasonable condition--the same amount of force hitting a small driver half the size of the big lummox and the explosive other effects of the airbag inflation, with the driver closer to the wheel due to having to move closer to reach the controls, can be fatal. But small drivers's wellbeing weren't of any concern to the airbag lobby.... one more thing that benefits a particular group and can make life a lot worse for people who aren;t in that group. It's privileging to the benefitting group, and eroding the quality of life of others....

Babies dying in cars with the parent(s)having inadvertently left them there, is a much lower probability occurrence than the annual slaughter of teenagers at the end of the school year who're out celebrating summer weather/end of classes/graduation/prom night/etc., or the carnage wrought by drivers with impaired judgment and/or reflexes from alcohol or various pharmaceutical or bad interactiosn of prescribed drugs.

Fluke tragedy happens--I had a coworker whose former boss lost a young son choking on a piece of food. There is the carnage of children backed over by a member of the family who didn't see the child in a blind spot for the driver behind the vehicle.

1200 children under 15 have been killed since 2000 in nontraffic motor-vehicle accidents in the United States. Half of those fatalities were in backover, almost all of them involving children under 5, according to Kids and Cars...

#143 ::: Don Fitch ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:40 PM:

Caroline @ 122:

I'm not really a Hoarder, just someone who rarely throws, or puts, away anything that's potentially useful, but I understand Paula's presentation. Both the back and passenger seats of my car are typically loaded with Stuph that probably weighs as much as a baby or small child, so I don't want to pay for a simple built-in weight-sensor alarm that I'd have to disable.

Mind you, I've never transported a child in the car, and don't expect to, but if it happened I'd be acutely aware of such a presence. The things I forget tend to be the frequent & automatic ones -- for some flavor of "frequent" that would include twice-per-year. (Yeah, I didn't "Spring forward", and got booted out of the Community Gardens an hour earlier than I'd expected.)

#144 ::: donna n-w ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:56 PM:

(sorry if this has been mentioned - my reading has been quite disjointed tonight)

What about a motion sensor for inside the car? One that becomes active when the car is off and alerts to the key fob that controls the locks. I don't know if a sleeping child would wake up in time every time, but from the accounts given at least some did.

Just having weight in the back seat would not set this off and it could also act as a secondary car alarm. And since the detector would be for inside the car the false alarms for theft would be much less likely.

I have a 3 year old and the idea of this is really horrifying. I also have massive amounts of stuff in my car - toys, clothes, food, blanket, emergency gear, running gear. I need that there too, so I understand the conflict.

#145 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2009, 11:57 PM:

One type of alarm exists that doesn't require changes to a car: distance-triggered luggage alarms. In the search linked above, one of the first hits is a $15 alarm to help prevent "children leaving adults." It might help with the reverse. These alarms range from tens to hundreds of dollars.

#146 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 12:11 AM:

Brainstorming the car seat: put the weight detector in the seat, and include a thermometer and some way to make the car freak out until a door has been opened. I don't know how to do that last bit, but I bet someone does.

As far as people not buying it because it can't possibly happen to them-- probability is not the point. If a mother doesn't buy something to keep her child safe, even if it's stupid, pointless, and counterproductive, other mothers will eviscerate her even before anything goes wrong. It's less, "It can't happen to me," than the niggling fear of, "If I don't cover my ass, they'll blame me."

#147 ::: Susie Lorand ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 12:12 AM:

Abi @ 109:

When my parents took us on sabbatical to the Netherlands[1], I was going into 7th grade. We kids were reluctant before we went; we did have culture shock, and probably some adjustment difficulties, but it ended up being one of the best experiences of my childhood. (And 8th grade, back in the U.S., was perhaps my worst year.)

Things that helped me with the language: tutoring from a neighbor; a classmate who knew English helping me understand assignments and the teachers; patient and accommodating teachers; watching English-language TV programs with Dutch subtitles. My siblings and I were proud that we learned language faster than our parents, and with less of an accent!

Making friends in a foreign country where I knew no-one to start with was the hardest part. I became quite a letter-writer (longhand, by snail mail). It helped that my class at school had a lot of social events, and some of the students actively tried to help me fit in.

Whatever is making things difficult for your son, I strongly doubt it's your fault. I hope it gets easier.


[1] Home in Paterswolde, school in Groningen

#148 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 12:14 AM:

My commonly carried travel backpack, when fully loaded for work, weighs somewhere in the 40+ lb range. The result of this is having the passenger side alarms go off in a variety of rental vehicles if I leave my backpack on the seat without buckling it in -- clearly I've got an unbuckled child beside me...

It's body memory and habit that count, the same as walking, driving, combing your hair ... putting pants on in the morning (can you recall which foot goes in first without having had a reason to find out before?). The same thing that means it's harder for a touch typist to type if you have to look at the keys.

#149 ::: el dub ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 12:18 AM:

David @ 129 & Lee @ 131:
I think there's something else going on as well, besides the denial/magical thinking/narrative, that can lead to us thinking "it couldn't possibly happen to me" -- I think on some level our body or mind just will not let us always realize all the possible dangers around us, because it would "scare us into immobility," as another commenter here put it. Or in other words, if all the very real possibilities of terrible things that could happen were really driven home to me, I would spend my time huddled in the corner hugging my knees and rocking back and forth. So in order for me to get out of bed in the morning, get in the car and get on the freeway, I have to just block out a whole bunch of legitimate fears. Luckily my body/mind does this for me without much conscious help from me.

I think a similar thing is partially responsible for the ability to heal from grief--after a while the body just says, you cannot hurt this much anymore, even if your conscious mind wants to continue hurting. You will function again, live again, be happy again.

But taken too far, this natural defense thing could lead to "it couldn't possibly happen to me." I think we have to find some middle ground, where we can do everything we possibly can to avoid tragedies, without running away from life, and without denying that bad things can happen.

#150 ::: Ron Sullivan ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 12:37 AM:

Let's see: Our RAV4 has a sensor that tells me when there's something in the front seat that it thinks is a passenger without a seatbelt. It flashes when my purse is there, at least when purse is fully loaded. It turns on a lighted symbol on the dashboard.

It also has signals—different sounds—that tell me I've opened the driver door and left the keys in the ignition, and when I've turned the ignition off and left the lights on. I'm assuming all this was standard-issue, based on my understanding of the previous owner's character. I'm thinking that including the back seat in this system wouldn't be expensive, and that using a noise rather than a light would be fairly attention-getting. I never fail to respond when the Silver Wombat beeps at me for any reason.

This thing might not save lots of lives but I don't think it would be pricey either. As an option? OK, whatever. The tech is already there. If airbags are switchable-off, then I don't see why this wouldn't be.

BTW I'm childfree as merry Hades myself, and a cheapskate too.

While I'm telling first-person stories:

When I'd ordered the ventilator pulled and we all waited 20—30 minutes and my little sister stopped breathing and she was dead and it was really real, no more hope even when we'd had none for days, my instincts were pretty much what I had left. I used to be a nurse, and it left an indelible mark on my soul. I did not scream, curse, wreck the ICU or shed blood. I shook all over and ground my teeth so hard I broke a molar at the root.

I do not remember any pain from that breaking, but months later when the break made itself known again I remembered a faint but distinct "crack!" inside my head and knew when it had happened. My brother-out-law said to me when Jeanne died, "Ron. You're allowed to cry."

I didn't, quite, for a long time. I'm not finished yet, and that was two years and one week ago.

I do understand Ms Balfour, in that regard. I'd bet that the public, nursed on imagined theatrics and soap-opera, wouldn't understand either of us. They depend on us, though.

#151 ::: Wyman Cooke ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 01:46 AM:

Ron @150

That only works if you go out and check the car. True story, happened here in Chattanooga a summer or so back. Businessman had a car like that. One morning the alarm kept going off. Like three or four times. He turned it off. I don't remember, but I think he figured a cat was jumping on it. The car had tinted windows so he couldn't see inside from a distance. About ten am he went out---and learned that he had forgotten his son in the back seat. The infant died of heat exhaustion, and he hadn't been in the car all day. After an investigation the dad wasn't prosecuted. He probably tortured himself more than any prison sentence could have.

There is no fool-proof technological fix.

#152 ::: Wyman Cooke ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 01:54 AM:

I hadn't even read page two of the article when I wrote earlier. He remembers the story too.

#153 ::: Ron Sullivan ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 02:02 AM:

Wyman @ 151: What I'm talking about—the alarms in my secondhand RAV4—go off when I'm still in the car.

Of course there are no foolproof technological fixes. What we're talking about here is harm reduction. Seatbelts. Drug labels. Fences. Keys.

#154 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 06:33 AM:

All very reminiscent of Human Factors for Pilots; high conflicting workload, fatigue, target fixation and perceptual narrowing. James Reason, the Swiss Cheese guy, I think developed the theory working on aircraft accidents. A lot of the same issues arose; people don't want to imagine that they make mistakes, still less that they tend to make the same mistakes because that's how their brains are wired up.

The problem with a technological fix here is that it's hard to sense and process negatives. In industry, you can do Lockout-Tagout standards so a machine tool won't start unless the guard is locked in position, and the guard cannot be unlocked until the machine stops, or you have to remove the REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT streamer before you can start the engines (this is often done where it's impractical to actually prevent the thing starting, just so that there is a physical action that tells you whether or not it's in a safe condition).

Note that the guard has to be positively shut to press the microswitch and activate the controls; imagine trying to implement it so that the machine would only start if a negative condition (i.e. the absence of a baby in the back seat) was fulfilled. Also, the baseline condition is that the car is shut down and locked; you can't have the alarm blaring every time it parks until any weight is removed, for reasons below.

Weight is one thing, but there are plenty of things that weigh in the same rough range and get placed on back seats. Especially if you're doing six things at once (briefcases, bags of shopping, toolboxes, computers, dogs, hydrogen jukeboxes etc).

And if the thing is constantly producing false positives, I guarantee people will learn to ignore it or bypass it. False alarms are the enemy of security, and car alarms are exhibit A.

It would be interesting to see what Bruce Schneier has to say about this.

#155 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 06:46 AM:

Train yourself to check the car *before* you have the baby sounds excellent, it's cheaper than adding electronics, and it might even be more reliable.

Would it make sense to put the idea into PSAs?

A distance from baby sensor for the parent sounds reasonable.

In re putting a seat belt on the backpack: it sounds silly, but keeping the backpack from becoming a missile in an accident might be worth it.

#156 ::: geek anachronism ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 07:39 AM:

Just a note for people taking the 'but they've suffered enough' line - the laws exist because there are people who leave their children in the car deliberately. It isn't about punishing the mistaken and accidental, it's about punishing the people who took a bloody stupid risk (insert speeding, shooting into the air, flicking a cigarette butt out of the window in summer or any number of crimes) and someone else paid the price.

I admit I don't know statistics - I can probably look it up. But a quick scan of the news reports have a whole lot more 'kids left in car while parent gambled' than 'kids forgotten in car'. Which are two different things entirely, with the same tragic results.

#157 ::: Camilla B ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 08:38 AM:

@ albatross (#60):

Sorry for not replying to your comments sooner - technical problems kept me away from posting again yesterday.

Having come down off the wardrobe overnight (yes, I am definitely one of the mad, flapping "something-has-to-be-done-about-this-TODAY" types), I agree with you (and the others who have since commented similarly) that installing something in cars is probably not the best solution. I liked the idea of using those proximity sensors though (one on the child, the other on the parent) - that sort of thing would be handy in all sorts of situations, not just car safety.

On reflection though, it seems wisest to rely on a mix of this sort of simple device and personal habits, rather than on one or the other. I am going to adopt some of the habits suggested here (like always checking the whole car before walking away from it, or putting something in the back seat that I know I'll need to take with me). We already use a rear-seat-mounted mirror so we can have eye contact with our son while we're driving.

More generally, regarding the comments about safety devices not being bought by parents who are scared people will think they're the kind of people who leave their kids behind in cars: I think this depends on the psychology of the individual. Some people don't like to admit to themselves or others that they're fallible, but there are also those who load up on all sorts of safety equipment because they're naturally anxious types, accept their own fallibility through previous experience, and/or just want to practice sensible risk-minimisation. Maybe also because they've had the thought of "do I want to run the risk of having to live with the regret that I didn't take this safety precaution when I could have?"

#158 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 09:10 AM:

oldfeminist #138:

No, I don't object to the story--it's good journalism. I can see how you got that from what I wrote, though.

What I'm saying is that journalism is inherently a distorting filter on the world, because commonplace stories aren't news. That means when you're reading a story like this, you need to take into account that what's being reported is (at best) giving you accurate portrayal of a low-probability slice of life. Like mass-shootings at work or school[1], or plane crashes, or outbreaks of Ebola, these things are spectacular and horrible, and very good reporting can be done on them. But it's very easy for readers of that reporting to get a completely skewed sense of the probabilities involved.

In some sense (thinking a lot about Taleb Nassim's arguments), we should care about these rare spectacular things when they have an unusually high impact. Leaving a child in a hot car is a terrible tragedy, but it probably has no more impact than having your kid drown in your swimming pool, long term--dead is dead, after all. By contrast, I feel like John McPhee's best reporting captures weird rare stuff that might actually have a big impact on the world--maybe the helium-filled self-lifting aerobody described in The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed hasn't really changed the world, but the kind of people who were working on that are also the kind of rare, weird people who often end up inventing a great deal of our world.

But really, I think the story was very good, very powerful. But it would be easy to be so affected by that powerful story that you radically misunderstood the relative risks you faced, leading to (for example) moving the carseat from the back to the front, probably at the cost of making your children less safe.

[1] Note that mass-shootings in the home aren't nearly so newsworthy. Go to your old office and kill your ex-boss and a couple of ex-coworkers, and you'll be front page national news. Go to your old house and kill your ex-wife and a couple of kids, and you'll be front page local news, but make no splash on the national news--you're just not interestingly rare enough a person.

#159 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 09:15 AM:

geek anachronism #156:

Right. But those laws are apparently often used to prosecute parents who, by all appearances, left their kid in the car by mistake. This simply compounds one tragedy with another--having lost a sibling in a terrible accident, you now also get to lose your dad to prison.

The intent of a law and what use prosecutors make of that law are two different things.

#160 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 10:10 AM:

Suzanne @ 139: That's interesting. My own experience is exactly the opposite. I used to leave my headlights on at least once or twice a month

It was the break of ritual. Ritual was, stop car, move hand to light switch, check that it's off, get out, grab bags, lock, step back, check lights. With the alarm I stopped doing it, and then I stopped noticing the alarm. I'm back to ritual now, despite a lights-on-alarm: Training the lizard brain to do checks. If I had a baby, I'd probably develop a habit to put a hand in the seat, just to be sure it's empty.

Strange thing is, it has happened that some habitual check comes out "something's wrong", I stand there confused until my higher brain functions call to investigate why we're not moving.

Memory and perception are very strange things.

Paula @ 142: Word to the DST hate. I have delayed sleep phase syndrome, or something to similar that it does not make a difference, and DST makes it worse by one hour.

Ron @ 150: IME the problem with car electronics is that they go haywire. My previous car had a sensor that was convinced it sensed low-octane gas, and in trying to compensate for that caused all kinds or mayhem, from driving down the gas mileage to, in the end, killing the engine. I'm very sceptical about all these "helpful" gadgets.

A non-built-in distance alarm would at least be easy to replace when it fails.

geek anachronism @ 156: But a quick scan of the news reports have a whole lot more 'kids left in car while parent gambled'

Inviting every stranger to call 911 or smash the car windows if they see children left in the car might do more to get people out of that habit than threats of prosecution for manslaughter. Because they might not believe they are likely to kill their kids, but they might easily believe they'd get into a hell of a hassle even if they don't.

That said, leaving kids or dogs in a car was pretty standard when I was a kid. But the climate here is very temperate...

#161 ::: Ursula L ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 10:58 AM:

Inviting every stranger to call 911 or smash the car windows if they see children left in the car...

Call 911, yes. Smash car windows, no. I suspect that more kids would be injured by breaking glass than would be harmed by waiting for a response from 911. Smashing glass would be a cure worse than the disease.

I'd like to see some sort of number for the number of kids being injured/killed by being left in a car, versus the number of kids actually left in cars unattended, versus the number of kids injured/killed in parking lots and otherwise walking to and from cars.

20-30 kids killed a year is a low number. If lots of kids are being left in cars unattended without harm, (which seems to be the case - every parent has a story of forgetting their kid in the car for a little while, and many choose to leave their kids in the car for short times) and many kids are also being injured by being walked through busy parking lots, it may be safer to allow kids to be left in cars (particularly for short errands by the parents) than to insist the kids are taken out of the car for every 10 minute trip into the bank.

#162 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 11:17 AM:

Ursula L @ 161: and many kids are also being injured by being walked through busy parking lots,

Good point about possible unintended consequences.

I remember one when the schoolkids had to cross a busy street twice, because no using the bicycle path on the wrong side of the road! Not even for 100 metres! Too dangerous!

The kids, having some sense of self-preservation, still used the left-side bicycle path as long as no police was in sight.

#163 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 11:43 AM:

I just had a different axis occur to me about the child (and pet...) expiration in the car problem--the actual cause of death is not the child or dog/cat/parakeet/ferret/gerbil/etc being locked in the car, it's the environmental conditions inside the car going outside the survivability range.

The cause of death is environmental.
Once upon a time on a hot day, people could leave side ventilation windows open, until the government outlawed side window configurations on the front seat which allowed those separately openable windows.

If there were some way to ventilate without the ventilation being a invitation for car theft, that might provide a lot of mitigation of the problem.

#164 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 11:44 AM:

albatross @ 159
In the chat record, the writer said he specifically chose stories where the parent unambiguously forgot hir child was in the car and didn't include cases, like the Kellys, where there was some history of habitually leaving kids on their own, where there would be some question as to possible culpability.

That said, how the laws that govern this sort of incident are applied seems to be unusually arbitrary, reflecting the subjective mindset of the local prosecutors rather than an objectively-defined general standard of "criminal". Mobley in Portsmouth looked for intent to harm, did not find it, and did not prosecute. Morrogh in Fairfax apparently considered intent to harm irrelevant: "There is a lot to be said for reaffirming people's obligations to protect their children." which may be so, and yay! for raising awareness, but if one doesn't use intent or wilful negligence as the marker for a criminal act, what's left?

#165 ::: ConstanceZEdwards ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 12:41 PM:

This did happen to me. I was the infant, and obviously I survived. In 1976, I was two months old, the child of a single parent who was grieving for my late father, who died before I was born. Mom was deep in the trenches of her Bachelor's in Accounting. It happened in March, on a cold, wet day so I got lucky. Mom remembered two hours after she left me... and at the same time, realized she'd locked the keys in the car with me. We lived in a small town and the EMS squad are all relatives, but she was certain I'd be going directly into foster care. She has often said that the only thing that kept her from losing her mind right then and there was seeing me moving in the back seat. I apparently slept through it, until the fire department got there with the slim-jim and couldn't pop the new-fangled anti-theft door locks. They had to break a window. That woke me up.

My mother now lives in Arizona, and to this day, 33 years later, she parks at the far end of the parking lot and checks the back seat of every car she passes for animals and kids, even at the grocery store. In the Phoenix metro area, ten minutes in a car can kill. She's never seen a kid, but she has saved two dogs. I think it's her penance for forgetting once, and when she sees a story on this subject, I see her go still.

It can happen to anyone, any time. The circumstances will always be substantially the same -- overriding situational stressors (job, school, relationship) compounded with immediate stressors.

I don't live near my mom, now, but by surviving, I got my own responsibility. I, too, park at the far end of the parking lot and check the back seats. I work at home so my efforts are probably limited, but one of the easiest ways I can imagine to help prevent this is this: get to know your coworkers and their cars. Know who has kids. When you walk past a car, peek. Be part of the village.

#166 ::: Cat Meadors ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 12:50 PM:

Really, I don't think the point of the article was either "how can we stop this from happening?" or "OMG THE HIDDEN KILLER - THIS COULD HAPPEN TO YOU PANIC PANIC PANIC" of the local news variety. It was more of an answer to the question "how could you forget your BABY?" and the people who assume only a truly evil person could do something like that. Which is why he picked people who were clearly non-evil; a response to the magical-thinking aspect of it. A lesson in empathy - and also, to some extent, to show why in this type of case (not the on-purpose kind) prosecution is the wrong answer, even when it's emotionally satisfying to some or even most of the population.

#167 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 01:22 PM:

Constance, #165: get to know your coworkers and their cars. Know who has kids. When you walk past a car, peek. Be part of the village.

Yes. Personal responsibility is a lovely ideal in the abstract, but when it leads you to write off concern for anyone else, it's become toxic. In life-or-death situations, the more redundancy you have in the system, the better off everyone is.

#168 ::: ConstanceZEdwards ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 01:46 PM:

Lee @ #167 - exactly. I kind of see it as the same point as Mr. MacDonald's (highly useful, brilliant) posts on first aid and being the 0th responder. Thank heavens we don't live in the Objectivist *paradise* and altruism still works.

#169 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 02:14 PM:

People who've never forgotten anything really important don't realize that importance is only one factor in whether you forget something. I've been told on multiple occasions that "it must not have been very important to you if you couldn't even remember," which is not true, of course, and if people know how memory (especially the memory of a "challenged" person like me) works they would be less hurt when I forget things.

I like the idea of proximity sensors in the car seat and on the parents' keychains. If the car seat has weight in it and is out of proximity of any keyfob, the seat and all associated keyfobs scream bloody murder.

Also, if I'm not mistaken there's no reason to expect the oxygen level in an empty car to drop, right? So if the oxygen level drops below a certain point, the car opens all the windows, unlocks the doors, and blows the horn. This will also get you if you left something burning in the ashtray, which is not a bug.

#170 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 02:26 PM:

Xopher @ 169: It's not a lack of oxygen that kills the children. Paula is right @163; it's environmental and the loss of the little side windows is probably another factor in the increase of hyperthermia deaths.

I suspect it will require a number of different things to overcome this new issue -- but the article really pointed us towards an understanding of (and empathizing with) the people who have suffered such a loss. As several have pointed out, the number of children lost is not that high. On the other hand, it didn't take many child deaths to encourage a different change, in the automatic window switches. Children dying of accidental window strangulation -- a horrific way to die -- were dying of a preventable condition. All cars now have modified buttons that prevent this from happening (i.e., instead of pushing down to bring the window up, you pull up the rocker to bring the window up).

Back to hyperthermia -- it is the temperature that kills, and it doesn't take long for a car to heat up inside, even on an overcast day. If you see a dog in a car or a baby in a car, take a moment to observe them. When in doubt, call 911 and let the police get them out.

It doesn't take long for hyperthermia to damage the brain. That's why high fevers are so dangerous, as is heat stroke.

#171 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 03:11 PM:

Ginger (170): If I understood Xopher correctly, he was suggesting that reduced oxygen levels would be a measureable indication of someone (a baby) left in the car (and using up oxygen as they breathe), rather than the cause of death.

#172 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 03:20 PM:

“There is no consistent character profile of the parent who does this to his or her child.”

Or, as Xopher at #169 says “importance is only one factor in whether you forget something.”

After I recovered from the emotional shock of this article, I couldn’t help but agree even more with David Allen, Merlin Mann, etc. who tell us to hack own weaknesses instead of judging them– sometimes the productive way to see personal behavior is as a pattern. Judging yourself for the pattern is a waste of time because it doesn’t change the pattern – i.e. it’s impossible to blame yourself into remembering your keys, you have to find a practical, external way to short circuit your pattern of forgetting.

For me, it’s unpacking my bag when I get home – all of it, even if it’s something I’ve taken with me every day for years. It all goes on the same shelf. Every time. If the shelf’s not empty before I leave for the day, I know I’m forgetting something. If I need to remember something in the morning, it goes on the shelf the night before.

I’ve read about some people who throw their keys onto the front porch of the house – if they don’t hear that metallic clunk before the door closes, their brain tells them something is wrong.

The key is realizing that details are always important, no matter how big or small the task is.

Sometimes life hacks are life-saving hacks, you never know, (heresiarch @ 141, I am sure you agree)

#173 ::: Adrian ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 03:22 PM:

I don't see a lot of value in building alarms into cars (or retrofitting them) that are supposed to set off a loud noise when the driver turns off the car and there's a weight in the back seat. The alarm needs to be sensitive enough to respond differently to an empty carseat and a carseat with a 6-lb baby. Xopher mentioned a seatbelt alarm responding to a heavy suitcase, but a sensor designed to notice a newborn will respond to bags that adults toss in the back without thinking of them as heavy (that's not even really a malfunction, because the sensor is responding to changes in weight.) They will probably also respond to the car bouncing over bumps in the road.

You know how people respond to car alarms? How much a car alarm going off makes people more alert, and makes them run to the emergency to help their neighbors? I expect this to work the same way. "I wish they'd never invented that stupid thing. It goes off every time I drive the car, whether the baby is with me or not. Good thing Robin took her to daycare today..."

#174 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 03:26 PM:

Unfortunately, you wouldn't be able to set the oxygen-detection thing at too sensitive a level, or it'd be going off all the time when one or two adults happened to be sitting in a car, waiting. And it'd take much longer for an infant to use up enough oxygen to be detected that way than it would for the infant to be killed by high temperatures.

#175 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 03:35 PM:

Re: 169 - 171

Lack of oxygen is not the problem -- automobiles are not air-tight, so oxygen levels would not diminish enough to register.

The problem is heat.

In all cases mentioned in the article, cause of death was hyperthermia. See Jim's post on Heat Stress:

It pains me to be redundant, but IF you see a baby or dog in a closed car on a sunny* day, get help for them as soon as possible.

*It does not have to be warm weather, a sunlit car makes a good substitute for a greenhouse -- unfortunately unlike greenhouses, closed cars do not vent automatically.

#176 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 03:51 PM:

Paula Lieberman @ 163

I have dogs that I often have to transport in my car (my kids are way too old to be worrying about at this point), which is one reason why one of the important features I look for when buying a car is a sunroof that can be cracked open far enough for ventilation, but not necessarily far enough to reach in and open a door. It's expensive, yes, but it's also another layer of defense against possible to harm to the dogs if I should forget I left them there. And a lifetime of ADD has made it very clear to me that I am not immune to making that sort of mistake.

#177 ::: Michael Adelstein ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 04:09 PM:

As a parent of two small children I just wanted to thank Patrick for posting the article.

Absolutely heartbreaking story.

#178 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 04:10 PM:

One complication here is that there are times when it makes sense to leave your child in the car for a couple minutes, frex while you're going back in the house to get the baby, or to retrieve a forgotten school bag, or let the dog out, or whatever. But this requires some thought w.r.t safety, along the lines of "what if I fall down the stairs and break my leg on the way in?" Thus, stuff like opening windows and taking the keys out of the car for smaller kids. (I suppose my two older kids, now 7 and 3, would unstrap themselves, unlock the door, and get out if it got too hot inside. A baby is obviously another matter.)

#179 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 04:26 PM:

#176: I leave my sunroof open all the way when Kira is in there. She's . . . formidable looking.

I also made a custom rear-window sun reflector. After new ducts were installed at work several yards of insulation -- essentially shiny silver bubble wrap -- were left over. I cut a panel to fit my window and fitted it with suction cups.

#180 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 04:50 PM:

#67 Or we could have a device that could disable the front seat airbag when a car-seat was there
My car, a 2006 Mazda5, has such a device. When the weight in the front passenger seat drops below a minimum number, the airbag deactivates.

This does not mean that I would ever put a car seat in the front passenger seat. It does seem to mean that, since the technology already exists, it would be trivial to put such a device in the back seat, such that if a minimum amount of weight is present, an alarm would sound.

#181 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 05:09 PM:

Xopher: I've been told on multiple occasions that "it must not have been very important to you if you couldn't even remember," which is not true, of course, and if people know how memory (especially the memory of a "challenged" person like me) works they would be less hurt when I forget things.


I'm a fairly unforgiving (but working on it) type-A personality, whose tendency is to tell a loved one, "How could you forget that? Is it not important to you?" What I took away from this story was a lesson in compassion, especially for lapses of memory. If a spouse forgets their spouse's birthday, it's not because they love their spouse less than they should. It's because so many things compete for one's memory, and it's the shiniest/noisiest things that win that competition.

I have a fairly good memory. Days of the week upcoming are tangible things in my head, such that once something's scheduled for Friday, Friday looks different to me. Exact words are easy to recall, and past injustices reduce me to tears of relived emotion a decade later when I unexpectedly remember them; I have a reputation for "carrying a grudge" because of these things. And yet! I've forgotten to feed my own cats when I wasn't even multitasking. I've forgotten to feed other people's cats (I am blessed with forgiving friends). I've double-booked myself because I've forgotten that "The day when X happens" is the same day as "Y happens every week". I've left my cell phone in the car, my keys on the counter, my wallet in a canvas sack in my bike such that it bounced out on the road...

I read this story and came away feeling terribly guilty for how I've treated loved ones whose only "crime" was having as fallible a memory as anyone else. The secondary effect was to realize how terribly I treat myself for not being perfect.

I understand the impulse to say, "EVERYONE should read this story." It's not cruelty that drives that impulse. It's wanting to shake people out of the "That only happens to other (less moral) people, never to me" narrative. In the case of parents, combating that narrative can save a life--or it can convince a parent who has made a similar mistake that they aren't bad people! In the case of everyone else, it can result in more compassion all around.

I think there are strong parallels between this issue and the one of the despicably common acceptance of mistreatment of prisoners. In the latter case, a lot of people don't think the law punishes convicts enough; in the former, a lot of people don't think a parent who tragically, mistakenly caused the death of their child will punish themselves enough. I think it goes along with thinking that only bad, immoral, evil people could make that mistake. If they're evil enough to make that mistake, they're evil enough to not feel guilty over it; therefore, we need to convict them as criminals so that they experience punishment.

Which is everyone should read this article. It leaves the reader in very little doubt that the parents aren't evil and are indeed undergoing a life sentence that no court can overturn.

#182 ::: geek anachronism ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 06:13 PM:

Cracked windows DO NOT HELP.

Children have died because their parent conscientiously cracked the window before taking off. Even more dogs have. This is an environmental killer, and when you've got 35 - 40 degree celcius days, a cracked window does not help. Christ, all the windows down may not help (babies don't regulate temperature like children or adults and can't do anything but cry, which won't help in an abandoned car park).

My mother checks cars and the only time i have ever ever seen her viciously angry was confronting a woman who left her little dog in the car at the shops. My mother saw the dog, reported it to the shop keepers who did an announcement. She sat and watched the dog for 15 minutes as it got progressively more anxious and upset and called the cops at 10 minutes, once it had stopped being anxious and was now shaking on the floor. After 20 minutes my mother went back in the store and told them she was going to break the window, and asked could they do another announcement? At which point the woman next to her threatened my mother because it was her car and she was only gone 5 minutes and how dare she be snooping! The little dog is fine! How dare she call the police! We honestly thought my mother was going to hit her. Turns out the woman had been in the shops, heard the call, but really needed to finish off her shopping - including cigarettes, which is where my mother met up with her.

Turns out the little dog was fine. Perception of time and heat are vastly different as an adult - how many times have you lost track of how long it took to drop in and get milk? Or been distracted? Or misjudged the temperature? How would you feel about sitting in that car for that long, with a window cracked and without water - to try and mimic the child response, pretend you're already sick as well.

Two or three times a year, in the capital cities, stories come out about kids killed in car because their parent left them there deliberately. Alarms won't help that. Community support will - from checking the backs of cars as you walk through to making sure there are support systems for working parents to helping addicted gamblers (like I said earlier, casinos now do patrols and have signs up everywhere about leaving kids or dogs in cars). A lot of that is going to help the accidental deaths too - if you've got more support, you are less likely to be suffering the stress/memory problems. Checking back seats when you walk through is going to help as well.

As an aside - I am very uncomfortable with the 'we shouldn't apply the law because they feel bad enough already'. Apart from the numerous abuse cases where 'oh he's suffered enough because of the bad publicity' has played a part (and don't forget those poor boys who might not get into the college they want!), do you really think drink drivers shouldn't be charged because it was their passenger instead of a stranger who died?

#183 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 06:23 PM:

Nicole@181: Yes, that. Your list of things you've forgotten even though you're mostly pretty good at remembering. Everybody does those things -- some 10 times more than others, sure, but not ZERO. Never. Nobody.

I don't see how so many people can react with such blatant denial to this story. I really don't think I'm unusually good at that "know thyself" thing.

#184 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 06:30 PM:

geek@182: You say "Cracked windows DO NOT HELP."

I think you mean "Cracked windows are not a magical solution, and in hot climates and bright sun make a very minor difference, and anyway the car can get 30 or 40 degrees F hotter than it needs to to kill a baby."

It may even be true that they make little enough difference that it's never safe to leave a baby in the car with the windows cracked when it isn't safe to leave the baby in the car with the windows closed.

The problem with saying "they don't help" is that it's blatantly and obviously false, and any geek can instantly see that it's false. Air circulates, and as soon as the interior temperature exceeds the exterior temperature, there will be some cooling effect.

#185 ::: Stuart ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 06:41 PM:

There was a presentation at the Austin Maker Faire by the author of Kluge. He pointed out that 6% of skydiving fatalities are experienced jumpers who just plain forget to pull the rip cord. This is a mistake that beginners never make.

#186 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 06:52 PM:

Alison@48: context, yes. Even making the wildest guess at what you'd call a "tunes session", I'd expect it to involve people who are in a listening mode. Outside of that context, people could have their minds on \anything/ to the exclusion of their surroundings. Worse, in the context of busking (which has some pretty dreadful practitioners) people could have the habit of focusing even tighter as soon as they hear the unexpected or see the open case -- sort of a mental fingers-in-the-ears posture.
Are there buskers at all in Japan? From what I've heard, in terms of commuting freneticness, Europe:USA::USA:Japan. It would be interesting to see experimental results there.

wrt the original: there's a reason old pilots use checklists; it's the same reason that secure facilities have OPEN/CLOSED refrigerator-style magnets. The author gives a wonderful description of the brain -- not as concise as the classic monkey-on-dog-on-lizard, but more reflective of how the brain does-or-doesn't work under circumstances it didn't evolve for.

Theophylact@70: have you any proof for your assertion that the homebound would have listened more than the workbound? I've never been a regular transit commuter (I bicycled a lot until my job moved to the periphery), but my occasional experience doesn't match your claim; people on both sides of the commute just want to be elsewhere, now.

#187 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 07:21 PM:

geek anachronism @ 182: I am very uncomfortable with the 'we shouldn't apply the law because they feel bad enough already'

I believe the point is different. The point is that they didn't in fact violate the law, because the law in question doesn't punish simple negligence, but neglience with "callous disregard for human life." (As Gene Weingarten said in the online discussion previously referenced.) The fact that these people were devastated by their lapse of memory is adduced as evidence that they are not callous, not as exculpatory in itself.

As to the drunk driving analogy (do you really think drink drivers shouldn't be charged because it was their passenger instead of a stranger who died? ) -- that level of negligence isn't at issue in the cases cited in the article. You choose to become drunk. You don't choose to forget your child.

#188 ::: Deb Geisler ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 07:28 PM:

Thank you, Patrick.

#189 ::: mary ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 07:51 PM:

Albatross @ 178 wrote: "there are times when it makes sense to leave your child in the car for a couple minutes"

See, the thing is, despite my having locked my son in the car and started to walk away one time when he was six weeks old, I wouldn't have intentionally left him in the car even for a couple of seconds. I was paranoid about someone snatching him, and it only takes a few seconds of inattentiveness on the part of a parent if someone is waiting for their chance. Sometime around the time my son was born there were incidents of babies being stolen and sold, and hearing what some people would pay for a baby, I realized my son was worth his weight in gold. I was afraid to take my eyes off him when I took him out in public. When I took him to the grocery store I wouldn't turn my back on the cart; I kept one hand on the cart at all times. The day I locked the car door and turned away, that was all lizard brain--yack yack yack parallel park yack yack yack lock the car yack yack yack. Also, the mother of a six week old baby isn't getting a lot of sleep. Honestly, I believe it could happen to anyone.

#190 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 08:16 PM:

geek @ 182: David Dyer-Bennet's point @ 182, and also I didn't say "window", I said "sunroof". The difference is that the sunroof opens a hole in the roof of the car, allowing the hottest air to leave and setting up some air circulation. It's not a solution for hours, but it's much better for a few minutes than nothing, or just a window.

#191 ::: Tae Kim ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 08:41 PM:

#181 Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little - I understand the impulse to say, "EVERYONE should read this story." It's not cruelty that drives that impulse. It's wanting to shake people out of the "That only happens to other (less moral) people, never to me" narrative. In the case of parents, combating that narrative can save a life--or it can convince a parent who has made a similar mistake that they aren't bad people! In the case of everyone else, it can result in more compassion all around.

Thank you. The responses to my 'this should be mandatory reading' have morphed into 'forced to read' and 'put a gun to someone's head and forced to read', with an emphasis on the perceived coercion that a mandatory reading would involve.

I guess mandatory = forced, but objecting to that part of my sentiment misses my main intent, which is less the cautionary tale, and more of what Nicole wrote. I touched upon it when I said "Sometimes graphic and upsetting is the way into an entrenched mind."

Reading this article isn't akin to forcing teens to watch "Red Asphalt" or "Blood on the Highway" before prom season. C'mon.

#192 ::: Laurel Krahn ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 08:56 PM:

Excellent article. I actually skipped the first page the first time through when I saw it included descriptions of the condition of those left in the car; you still get a lot out of the article if you skip that graphic bit.

Oprah did a show on this topic last September which got a lot of people talking about how easy it is to make tragic mistakes in the car or at home.

I think it'd be great if there was some relatively cheap gadget that parents could buy to help them remember that their baby is in the car. Could be sold with car seats or required as they are. Heck, memory tools like that could work for a number of applications. Rituals help too-- I can't close the car door without my keys in my hand.

I do agree it might be overkill to have a safety device in cars to aid with this, but it depends on the type of device-- there might be some easy cheap additional gizmo that could help.

After reading stats on drunk driving recently, I sympathize with people who think breathalyzers in cars aren't a bad idea. I know it's not practical and don't recommend it, but I'm floored that so many people get into cars after drinking. I'm not sure what can be done there, but many more deaths result from folks who drink and drive than by folks who forget kids in cars. There's no way to prevent everything, but after something touches your life or you read an article like this one, it's hard not to want to find some way to prevent the bad stuff.

#193 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 10:28 PM:

Regarding what to do if you find a child in a car in a parking lot, and whether to smash the glass: Weingarten touches on this in the chat:

"Call 911 unless the child is obviously in distress and immediate jeopardy. At that point, you smash your way in."

So there's that.

Tae Kim, I'm glad I ended up grokking your point correctly. I was questioning my own "Put this in the curriculum NAO" impulse what with everyone saying how cruel that is. Thing is, it surely *is* a tough piece to read, especially for parents... I mean, I've experienced banging-on-things-and-howling grief over things that can no longer be changed, but I've been fortunate in that my tragedies are minor compared to these! ...but is suffering nightmares and terror and heartache upon reading it a crueler experience than the cruelty we visit on each other in the name of "It could never happen to me because I'm not evil"?

David D-B: thanks for the nod. I think, for me, that it was a surprise to realize that I can be just as bad as any "couldn't happen to me" believer, within my own special subsets of duty/morality ideals. Reading this story was humbling.

I'm suddenly reminded --talk about banal!-- of the night I blearied my way through my nighttime rituals and so to the bed, lay down to sleep, heard my husband get up and visit the bathroom, and then heard him chuckle. "You left all your clothes in here," he said. "Oh. I'm sorry," sez I, "I must have been out of it. I should have put those in the laundry basket." "No," sez he, "don't be sorry--I'm just relieved to see you do it, too, once in a while."

Which woke me up a little to how habitually I proceed with unthinking expectations of perfection out of those closest to me, and out of myself, and how damaging that really can be.

Apropos of nothing much: I really, really identify with Lyn Balfour. Not just the type-A personality, but the way that her ability to function in the face of Utter Crap (not to mention her recognition of the pragmatic uselessness of outward displays of guilt) gives the people around her the impression that she's cold. But if tragedy caused her to stop functioning, stop living a productive life, stop doing good in the world, what good would that do anyone?

It's good to be self-reliant to get by even when everyone lets you down, because it sucks when your life comes to screeching halt due to factors you can't control--but it's unfortunate that an outer veneer of self-reliance lulls others into forgetting you could possibly have needs. It's useful to be able to continue arguing coherently even though tears of anger are streaming down your face--but then people think you're faking tears to manipulate them. It's downright necessary to soldier on (no pun intended, Lyn) after you've lived through utter hell--but then people think you haven't suffered enough. It's like people require a show of extra misery on top of the original misery before they'll condescend to acknowledge the original misery. And that just plain sucks. So. Here's to Lyn Balfour.

#194 ::: Tae Kim ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2009, 11:45 PM:

#193 Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little - Apropos of nothing much: I really, really identify with Lyn Balfour. Not just the type-A personality, but the way that her ability to function in the face of Utter Crap (not to mention her recognition of the pragmatic uselessness of outward displays of guilt) gives the people around her the impression that she's cold.

L’Étranger, anyone?

#195 ::: Jacob ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 12:18 AM:

David Manheim @67: "Engineers are not required to take classes in ethics."

In Canada, at least, engineers wear iron rings on the pinkie fingers. The story I heard about this is that the orginal iron rings were manufactured from a bridge that collapsed due to a flaw in the engineering. So every day, they are reminded about the consequences of mistakes.

#196 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 12:24 AM:

In Canada, at least, engineers wear iron rings on the pinkie fingers.

When our elder son graduated from Vanderbilt a couple of years ago with a degree in mechanical engineering, he got just such an iron ring.

#197 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 12:38 AM:

Nicole, #181: I used to have a memory very much like what you describe here. Now... my memory is more like what I used to either laugh about, or be frustrated by, in my older friends. It's not yet bad enough to make me worried about Alzheimer's, but there's definitely less acuity than there used to be. What I tell myself is that the memory capacity accessible to any given person is finite, and that as more of it is taken up by the ongoing video of life happening, less is available for storing details. As a result, I have developed various coping mechanisms to help me remember the things I really have to remember. I have also, with some reluctance, stopped memorizing my friends' phone numbers, because now I have a cellphone to store them for me. (In my late 20s and early 30s, I carried around a database of probably close to 100 phone numbers in my head, including those of people in other cities; now I have other uses for that memory capacity.)

The main reason I'm telling you this is so that if/when this starts to happen to you in another 20 years or so, you won't think that you're losing your mind. It appears to be a natural concomitant of aging.

#198 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 12:44 AM:

Bob Rossney: I didn't care for the subway article because the guy playing in the subway wasn't significant. I've stopped, often, to see someone play. But not when I had someplace to be. For all that, the guy could have been just as good playing on a less, "magnificent" violin. That people going someplace didn't stop doesn't tell me anything about them.

Steve C: We keep the backseat belts fastened, because that way they don't disappear when the seats get folded down. That buzzer would fail us.

albatross: I agree, on the one hand, this is a sensational risk being made to look almost commonplace. What I don't agree is that it's a sort of commonplace which is bad to point out. If I took anything away from this it's that, "there but for the grace of God." It can (contra the prosecutor) happen to anyone. Making people more aware this isn't a gross failing, nor the work of monsters, is a net good.

Because the rare person who ends up the parent of one of those 1:100,000 needs all the comfort and support they can get.

Ursula L: Car windows are laminate safety glass (meant to prevent bounce-back decapitations, among other things). They don't break into the sort of dangerous pieces a regular window does.

Paula: I don't think the public at large would accept ventilation windows anymore. They make theft a lot easier. I also think they won't prevent this. The won't keep the car at ambient, and it doesn't take that much of a rise in temperature to kill a child. If they are dressed, the "wind-wings" probably won't save them.

And they are more expensive.

#199 ::: gottacook ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 12:51 AM:

Paula@163: "the government outlawed side window configurations on the front seat which allowed those separately openable windows." What are you talking about? I remember pretty well the various mandated safety improvements of the era (for example, collapsible steering column for the '67 model year; head restraints, side marker lights, and those fiddly separate shoulder belts in '68, etc.). I don't recall front door vent windows being outlawed.

As far as I know, they simply became unfashionable around the same time that carmakers realized it was cheaper to omit them - that is, around 1969-70 when many of these other regulations went into effect (but as early as '66 for several expensive GM cars such as the Buick Riviera). Leaving trucks and vans aside, front-door vent windows were extinct by 1977 except as options on several Chrysler and Ford cars.

(The Ford Fairmont and its offshoots offered them as options up until 1985 or so, as did the Lincoln Town Car; on the latter they were electric and went up and down rather than swiveling. I'm sure that if vent windows had been outlawed during the Reagan years, I'd be aware of it.)

Gene Weingarten is one of the few reasons we continue to subscribe to the Post; I also look at his online chat every week and would pay to read it separately if I had to. (So far I've read the chat but have only glanced at the article. As noted in the chat, the printed magazine version is worth seeking out - page layout and design, photo selection and placement, etc., may be a dying art but nonetheless deserves respect and support for the contribution it can make to text.)

#200 ::: Paula Lieberrman ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 01:39 AM:

#199 gottacook

My memory is that they were outlawed due to the metal verticals causing blindspots in sightlines.

#201 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 02:34 AM:

My memory is that they were outlawed due to the metal verticals causing blindspots in sightlines.

This may be true, but if so it should no longer be an issue. The door posts of modern cars with side airbags block at least as much sight to the side. I discovered this recently when I replaced a (totalled) '92 Volvo 740 wagon with only a front driver airbag with an '04 XC70 wagon with side curtain airbags. Even 3 months later I find myself bothered by the loss of sightlines in some situations.

#202 ::: oliviacw ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 02:37 AM:

On side-vent mother's 1973 Chrysler Duster had REAR side-vent windows - it was a two-door, and so the little side vent windows were all that was available for ventilation in the back seat. They had a mechanism that allowed them to angle out by about three inches - it never let a lot of air in.

My parents later bought a 1980-something Oldsmobile something-or-other that had particularly inane rear windows (this was a four-door) - they would only roll down halfway. They bought it just before I went to college, so thankfully I never spent much time riding around in it. Still drove me batty, though.

#203 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 02:38 AM:

My wife points out that weight is probably not the right trigger for babies, but rather, the 5 point harness buckle. If there were a proximity detector on the keys that connected to a sensor for if the car seat was buckled, that would probably do it. (and they're not in a car seat, they're probably not nearly as at risk for this, unless they are the sort of kid that likes playing in parked cars. )

That would put the onus on the car seat manufacturers rather than the auto manufacturers, so it should be a lot better for those who don't have kids in the back seat.

#204 ::: debcha ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 03:14 AM:

Jacob (#195) and James D. MacDonald (#196):

All graduating engineers at Canadian schools participate in The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer, which was created by Rudyard Kipling in the 1920s at the request of a professor at the University of Toronto. It's roughly analogous to the Hippocratic Oath; the details of the ceremony are private, but basically you affirm your intention to work to the best of your ability and for the good of society. As a symbol and a reminder of this affirmation, you are given an Iron Ring to wear. While it does, in practice, act as an in-group identifier (much like the Brass Rat), that's certainly not its purpose.

Incidentally, my understanding is that the story that Jacob cited (that the original rings were made of metal from a collapsed bridge) is apocryphal.

#205 ::: geek anachronism ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 06:36 AM:

@David Dyer-Bennet 184

I looked up a few studies to check, but they say the same thing - once it's over 45 degrees, you've hit the danger zone and windows being cracked doesn't make a significant enough difference to matter. Same with shades or having a lighter coloured car. It can rise to 45 degrees in under 10 minutes, regardless of windows being open or the aircon having been on (19 to 30 in the first minute). There isn't enough of a cooling effect to make any sort of actual difference (70 versus 78 is already too late). Same people doing the study rescued over a 1000 people and pets left in cars - accidentally and on purpose. Because it's the "I just had to duck back inside to grab my bag, but someone called and I did this but it can't get that hot can it?". They were still rescuing kids in the middle of the biggest heat wave my city has gotten - people are actually that stupid.

Windows completely down is probably different, same with sunroof. But if I'm not willing to go and sit in there, why the hell would I leave kids/dogs in there?

#206 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 10:50 AM:

Engineers in the U.S. have the option to join the Order of the Engineer. We get a steel ring for our pinkies, and it is not faceted like a Canadian engineer's ring is.

Most expensive piece of jewelry I will ever own. (It cost $15, + one undergraduate education.)

#207 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 11:00 AM:

I couldn't get the href code to work.

#208 ::: Trey ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 11:46 AM:

Albatross @ #123: Seconded. Here in Mississippi, the wife of the sheriff in one our neighboring counties (can't remember if its Warren or Madison) has made this her own crusade. They give out stickers and try to raise awareness on it.

#209 ::: Pfusand ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 02:20 PM:

My wife points out that weight is probably not the right trigger for babies, but rather, the 5 point harness buckle. If there were a proximity detector on the keys that connected to a sensor for if the car seat was buckled, that would probably do it.

I too thought of this. Now, I know nothing about child seats, but I'm assuming that there is one buckle for the seat itself, and another for the child. (1) Have a pleasant chime sound every ... five (?) seconds if the child's buckle is latched and the engine is not on. (It would be a great feasture if it only sounded after the engine was turned off.) (2) Do not permit the doors to be locked from the outside if the child's buckle is latched. (Or some other nag-y alternative.)

P.S. Yes, of course I've forgotten very important things!

#210 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 03:06 PM:


Normally, there's a 5 point harness connected to the seat, and something to connect the seat to the car, either the built-in seat belts, or the latch system. And for babies, quite often the car seat attaches to a base, which then attaches to the car.

So, what you'd generally want is the parent->bucked car seat distance to be small. Either because the seat is unlatched and the baby in in hand, or he parent is lugging a plastic contraption with a baby in it around.

While the car seats with bases are useful and handy, they're big and bulky and it's easier for us to stuff the baby in a sling and leave the plastic thing in the car. So, we went to full size seats real early with both kids so far, and we probably won't even have one of the infant style seats for the next one.

I wouldn't want beepy things when the engine is off. Especially if it would wake the sleepy baby. We wind up waiting in the car often enough that it would drive us batty. (think 15 minute ferry waits, or ferry crossings). It would make me attack the beeper with wire cutters, which is not really the appropriate reaction.

#211 ::: Pamela ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 04:08 PM:

Yeah, I read this yesterday and was stunned. I wanted to DO SOMETHING to share it and talk about it -- I am mom to a 3.5 yo and an 8 mo and I know it could happen to me under the right (wrong) circumstances. So glad to find a discussion here. Horrifying stories, but great newspaper article. Thanks for posting it.

#212 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 05:29 PM:

As albatross points out, the particular "hazard" under discussion is very rare -- enough so that I'd say it's best to consider it as just another form of "misadventure". Human children are strikingly vulnerable, which is why both parents and society devote so much energy to protecting them.

But the thing is -- sometimes, the dragon wins. And yes, the "dragons" in play here include not only physical hazards, but the human fallibilities of a child's guardians.

#213 ::: Ledasmom ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 06:02 PM:

It occured to me that if the back doors of a car with a carseat in it automatically opened when the driver's door did, and the carseat slid out on a sort of shelf, it would be pretty damn hard to forget a baby in the car. This is not very practical. However, something that required a positive action to leave the baby, rather than a negative action (not taking the baby out), would probably help, but I can't quite figure out how that would work.
But what if it were impossible to lock the doors of a car without going around to each door and, say, touching the lock with the key? Wouldn't having to walk around the car tend to remind the driver about the existence of the back seat?

#214 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 07:07 PM:

Ledasmom: I'd rather not! Those of us who don't have children will hate life when it's bucketing down. So will those of us who do have children, plural, like a baby and a 3yo in the same car.

#215 ::: Ledasmom ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 07:26 PM:

When I had an infant and a five-year-old I'd pretty much have to walk all around the car anyway, since for a good bit of the children's younger years they both had child locks activated on their doors.
I suppose there could be an extremely loud buzzer attached to the car seat that would go off when one opened the driver's door, which would both serve as a reminder and prod the baby into providing its own extremely audible reminder.

#216 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 08:24 PM:

Ledasmom @ 215: A number of parents-of-infants of my acquaintance have, from time to time, taken said infants for a drive to get them to go to sleep. Something about the vibration, the slight movement, a bit of fresh air -- something about it seems to be very effective at inducing slumber. A loud buzzer automatically going off when the door is opened probably wouldn't go over very well.

#217 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2009, 08:51 PM:

—It's all about the "human hacks." If you're female, throw the purse in the back with the diaper bag— that's my trick. I also park so that I have to walk by the back window. I use the same trick to keep track of my glasses (only used for driving and watching movies)— same place, every time. Make the habit; keep the habit.

Yes, I developed this habit out of a fear of leaving Gareth behind. I've never left anything like that in a car; the one time I locked my keys in the car, they fell out of a pocket. But I most definitely don't want to break that streak.

—My sister-in-law had an incident with her second child where she strapped the infant into her seat on a hot day, walked around the car, stepped into a hole, broke her leg, and was throw into the bushes. She started screaming at her neighbors to get the baby and they kept trying to help her! "NO, GET THE BABY!"

Baby was fine (and is now a graduating senior in high school), but talk about your outlier scenario...

—I live in a pretty hot climate.* This sort of thing is not only nightmarish, it's easily possible for three-quarters of the year. I haven't heard of any infant cases but you'll hear about pets every so often. They run some intensive campaigning to try to teach people that cars can heat up quickly.

A local radio reporter actually spent some time in an enclosed car (with med support nearby), reporting every ten minutes or so. I think he made it about forty minutes— and that's an adult.

*Temperatures can reach over 100º for up to three week stretches. We had no air conditioning in the car when I grew up, and shade parking is the first to fill, so I remember well the sensation of getting into a car that had been an oven. Nothing like that sensation in the world.

#218 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2009, 12:48 AM:

Geek A: As others have said, no, get into the habit now, not soon. Get the car seat. Put it in the car (or as you think you're going to do the ritual). Put something you are never without in the seat, not by throwing it in the back (well, maybe that too), but by putting it in the way you will put the child. Cell phone, maybe (that way you can't use it while driving :-). You've got months to learn the habit, take advantage of them.

Iron Ring - I was wondering when that was going to come up. We had a pre-ritual morning meeting that was effectively an ethics class, in addition to the one we had to take to graduate.

The neat thing about the Iron Ring is that it goes on the little finger of the working hand, so as you work, it makes noise. While there are certainly "ring-clinkers" (if you're not an Engineer, you're a lower class), that is definitely not the point, but to remind you every time you hear it about your ethics. Same thing, really - habit.

Of course, I'm left-handed. So, people often tell me "U'r doing it rong". Also, when I got married, it made finding a suitable wedding ring - interesting.

But yeah, most expensive piece of jewelry no kidding. And it's not even mine - it has to go back when I'm finished with it (Reminder to self; update your will).

#219 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2009, 10:11 AM:

I saw a couple of minutes of a movie about WW2. Allied soldiers holding up in a town were besieged by the Germans. At one point, a middle-aged man comes out of his house and finds his son on the ground, looking like he's asleep. The man gently raises the boy, cradles him for a moment, then picks him up and carries him a few feet and puts him with one or more other family members. I don't remember what the man's face looked like -- beyond grief, perhaps -- I remember the boy, wearing glasses that were a clue to family history and the care they took for him. I turned it off right after that, and soon I went to bed, where I lay and thought about it for a while, thought about how we used to listen outside Sarah's door to be sure she was breathing. I thought about an unimaginable sense of loss.

How much more painful this article was than that scene.

John L @83 - I don't feel that the courts... should punish these parents for their mistakes... I think what the courts are doing, in many cases, is determining whether it was a mistake. Guilty people who have just killed a loved one can look just as distraught, unfortunately. I've seen them on TV -- people who have turned out to be murderers. They use the noble reluctance most people have to pester someone in grief as a way of hiding their culpability. Bad things don't always just happen: sometimes people do them.

#220 ::: Naomi ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2009, 02:28 PM:

@26 said: One obvious moral: if you have backwards-facing child seat, use the front seat. The airbag isn't going to do any damage then.

I wanted to post to say that this is not correct: a rear-facing child seat hit by an airbag can collapse and kill the kid. This is a life-threatening solution.

Also, to add to the human hacks that have already been suggested (putting your purse / briefcase / coat / lunch / phone in the back seat), you can also buy a little mirror to attach to the rear window with suction cups so that you can see your baby's face in your rear-view mirror (and your baby can see you). These are not entirely safe either, as they will come loose in an accident and become a hazardous flying missile. (As will anything else that's loose in the car, from your briefcase to your dog, FYI.)

The fundamental problem with any human hack is that it requires the human to admit their own fallibility. I really like the idea of building something into car seat buckles that communicates with a gadget on your key fob. So each time you turn off your car, the fob will say, "Your child is in the back seat," or if you get a certain number of feet away it will say "your child is in the car," or whatever. One problem that would need to be solved: parents often trade off who drives the kid around, and it would be important that my fob not start randomly going off as my husband drives the kid to school.

#221 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2009, 04:13 PM:

When I first read this, I wanted to write a 5,000 word comment and also wanted to say nothing at all.

The kind of incidents described are a species of car accident. Cars are dangerous to children. Period.

A couple of weeks ago I nearly drove the kids and I off an embankment on a suddenly-snowcovered mountain road. I brought the car to a stop without any injuries, but it was a near thing.

When I was talking to the people from the insurance company, I was really impressed by their tact and their compassion. Eventually, I realized, I was one of the easy cases. No one was hurt. These were the women you had to tell that, say, your toddler had gone through the windshield and been decapitated.

I found myself completely shutting down having to fill out state forms with boxes to fill in on how many passengers had had heir chest cavities crushed, and how many had died, etc.

The cop who helped me at the scene of the accident, with some embarrassment, issued me a ticket. I kept it longer than I should have, unable to being myself to plead either innocent or guilty to driving too fast for the conditions. Eventually, I had David fill it out for me and just signed it. I just couldn't deal wit that question. And it was just a traffic ticket.

#222 ::: Shallot ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2009, 04:43 PM:

Wow. That really was an amazing piece. I went into it thinking "Oh my god, horror story." and came out behind them all the way. That's what I call skill.

Adding to the discussion above me, wouldn't it be possible to have it included on those light-up seatbelt diagrams they have on the dashboard of some cars? The ones that light up a particular space when the person in it isn't buckled up? You could have the person icon light up when there's someone in the seat, and a seatbelt icon flash red on top of it when they're not buckled up. I doubt car companies would be that receptive to anything too intrusive, unfortunately, but a smaller addition might have a chance.

#223 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2009, 05:00 PM:

Kathryn, I'm glad you're okay and no ambulance squad had a lousy day on your account.

Cars are dangerous. See also Seat Belts Save Lives and Heat Stress.

Among the human hacks, don't forget (to the extent possible) the Buddy System. Checklists are also good. I talk myself through checklists on a lot of things, out loud. Including performing CPR and lowering the wheels on a stretcher when taking it out of the back of an ambulance (so that the whole thing, with patient, doesn't hit the ground with an embarrassing bang).

#224 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2009, 06:08 PM:

Everyone was strapped in, and my daughter was in an appropriate booster seat. My kids now have a _really_ vivid understanding of what seatbelts can do for them.

When we bought me a car we bought a Chevy HHR which has excellent crash test ratings. My poor car sustained over seven thousand dollars in damage, but nothing on the interior of the car was damaged, and no one was injured. (We also had 3 cats in the car, all in individual cat carriers plus a tortoise in a carrier. They seemed quite unfazed by the accident.)

I took out three guard-rail posts while avoiding plunging over the embankment. I chatted a bit with the insurance claims adjuster after the accident, who also seemed to think highly of our model of car. He said HHRs did real well in head-on collisions.

#225 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2009, 04:53 PM:

I haven't yet seen an engineering solution remotely practical, and can't imagine one.

Automatically open the door and slide the seat out on a gantry? Oh I hope that doesn't come off as a great idea, sounds like a good way to thrust the wee one into oncoming traffic every single time he takes a trip. Talk about baby with the bathwater.

Sensors and detectors in the seat itself? These things are just ruggedized plastic, they don't exactly have a power source, and trying to engineer one in seems like a good way to end up pricing these things well out of reach of the vast majority of people. Not to mention it'd have to rely on a battery of some kind, and batteries die.

Not all dangers can be engineered away. Sure, this is rare, but it extreme, and absolutely devastating, even in those cases deemed less than morally unambiguous cases, "callous" isn't the right word to use. "Foolish and uninformed." This one is purely social awareness, the vigilants making it their business to peek in windows in car parks will make a difference, mall or workplace security making it their routine to do the same would make a difference. Neither engineering nor criminal prosecution will.

#226 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2009, 08:38 PM:

The old Emergency! TV show (Johnny and Roy) had one program that included a child locked in a car in a parking lot. (The ep was "Audit," and was the final show of season two. 1973.)

#227 ::: SeamusAndrewMurphy ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2009, 11:33 PM:


Well, this certainly brought tears to my eyes.

I have lived my life, and my family, subsequently, has lived their lives far different than the majority of people I know.

I decided years ago to fore-go debt and live within my income. It has meant a strangled standard of living compared with accepted norms.

One aspect of this decision was that I walked or rode a bicycle to work year-round, in New England, so weather was a real factor. This is nothing exceptional, but the wrath I incurred was: Co-workers often jeered my decision to walk to work (an hour's worth of effort) rather than to leave my children, both aged less than five, unattended while my wife "should have" driven me to work with our one affordable vehicle.

My disbelief at their considered opinion found no friends or empathy. So, unless I was willing to take an enormous load of grief (which, I was), the received wisdom among ALL of my peers was that it was more prudent to chance something going wrong with my toddlers rather than discomfort myself. Instead, I, along with my wife, chose to keep my wife at home while I walked/rode to work. An hour's walk isn't really harmful, just inconvenient, and the peace of mind knowing that the kiddies were attended to, rather than left unsupervised for a twenty-plus minute's drive (we thought, more than potentially deadly at their young age) more than made up for the distress I received.

The point isn't that I or my wife are some sort of super-parent, we aren't, just ask my now teen-aged children (by their accounting, I SUCK!). Rather, the point is: attending to work, attending to one's work pursuits, and attending to the needs of those pursuits are what will be rewarded in our current society (kind'a sort'a). And anything that might diminish those pursuits will be met with social opprobrium, which is painful.

Who the hell could condemn this guy for his horrific oversight without accepting that our culture pushed him to it? BUT, who the hell can't see what folly it is to pay attention to the cultural bias that work success trumps all?

Get it? You can't win either way. Meanwhile, this poor guy's kid is dead FOREVER, AND he won't ever be able to live with it.

What's left, but sorrow?

#228 ::: Tae Kim ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2009, 01:09 PM:

#227 SeamusAndrewMurphy - Co-workers often jeered my decision to walk to work (an hour's worth of effort) rather than to leave my children, both aged less than five, unattended while my wife "should have" driven me to work with our one affordable vehicle.

I'm having a little trouble understanding this. The choice was between walking to work or having your wife drive you to work while leaving the kids at home alone?

#229 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2009, 02:12 PM:

SeamusAndrewMurphy @227:
Man, you need a different set of co-workers. I've never in my life met people who would say what you say they did.

The point is not that these people were pressured by the need to be successful at work. The point is that life is complex and brains don't always keep up. That's why, for instance, my husband and I left our son's car seat unfastened on a Sunday outing, or why mary left her son in the car on the way to a restaurant.

This means that even you, with your priorities straight as a laser-guided arrow*, could very possibly have made that kind of mistake. It could happen to anybody. Virtue is no shield.

* Or other Very Straight Thing

#230 ::: geek anachronism ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2009, 01:43 AM:

And what happens if YOUR salary doesn't cover it? Or your wife doesn't want to be kept at home with the kids? I mean, your coworkers suck (I've never ever met anyone who would advocate leaving children home alone at a young age) and I'm a little bewildered about the either/or part of it as well, but that's not what saved your kids from being left in the car. What saved your kids is that your brain didn't glitch out.

#231 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2009, 06:10 PM:

Incidentally, there are now two lowercase "eric"s in the thread, and it's not just me and my mirror... I mention this because he seems to be disagreeing with me.

#232 ::: Dead Charming ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2009, 09:00 PM:

I've tried to write about my own child's death in the past, and it's VERY tough to explain the emotions one feels.

For my money, this is the closest someone has ever gotten to actually capturing the hideous combination of guilt, sorrow, self-loathing, pain and unavoidable horror that wakes you up from a dead sleep for years afterwards.

Beyond the subject matter, or even the killer close, the article is transcendental for it's sheer power of conveying what a human being feels under these kinds of circumstances.

As craft this is utterly remarkable.

#233 ::: Wyman Cooke ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2009, 09:28 PM:

Jim@226: Adam 12 had a vignette where concerned people flagged down the police to report a baby in a locked car. The cops opened the door and got the baby out. At that point the concerned people turned and walked away. And then the mother showed up, upset at the police for unlocking her car and getting her baby out.

Nowadays the crowd would have hung around and the mom would have had to do some fast talking.

#234 ::: Pyre ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2009, 11:42 PM:

At the risk of making a stupid suggestion (and being told so), may I ask what would be wrong with attaching a retractable leash to the baby carrier -- not the installed car seat but the part that goes wherever the baby goes -- and the other end to: (a) your wrist? (b) your purse? (c) your car keys?

Not much required in the way of technology (no circuitry, no batteries, no car upgrade), but it could serve as an effective reminder, yes?

#235 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2009, 11:32 AM:

So it's "hey, don't you know this town has a leash law?!", right? heh.

Toddler leashes exist, but are not used nearly often enough. Beware the easy-to-foil Velcro models, though.

In-car leash use might strangle a few of the rug biters, though. Off-label use would likely give the manufacturers a "get out of liability lawsuit free" card, too. There's room for product innovation, though.

#236 ::: Tae Kim ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2009, 07:14 PM:

#234, 235 - it exists:

#237 ::: Sandra Bond ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2009, 07:42 PM:

Thanks, Patrick, for pointing out what is simultaneously a majorly impressive piece of journalism and a highly important pointer for those who may have been unaware of this potential deadly pitfall.

I never did think "Home Alone" was a very funny movie even before reading this.

There has been a considerable amount of debate in the British legal community about the question of prosecution without the necessity for mens rea where motor vehicles is involved, ever since the Great Heck rail disaster caused by a guy falling asleep at the wheel and having the misfortune to end up with his car athwart a rail line. (Yes, he was prosecuted and imprisoned).

Where to draw the line between simple misfortune and criminal negligence is a hideously tough question, and it makes me very glad all over again that I'm a civil and not a criminal lawyer.

@124: I think you have just taken over top spot in my list of 'most impressive ER stories'. Mind you, it's been (I think) documented that very small babies actually do better than simple statistics would dictate in car crashes and similar trauma; where an adult would tense up in the instant before impact (which is apparently the Wrong Thing To Do), a baby hasn't yet learned to do so instinctively.

#238 ::: DM SHERWOOD ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 07:42 AM:

I'm a fuck-up. Mostly in amiable small ways that don't matter a damn but I have deliberately chosen not to learn to drive -tho in modern city life its a pain in the ass (the money I spend on taxis !!!!) because I can't trust myself not to have an insight into what Heinlein was DOING in his last 1/2 dozen monster Novels & pile into a school bus or something. So yeah I grok; doesn't help me to decide wether the guy SHOULD ever forgive himself-don't know even how to frame the question.
The philosopher Dan Dennett mentioned the case (without naming names) in his last but one book FREEDOM EVOLVES- he admits the problem defeats him too.
If its relevant the guy who wrote GORMAGHAST (forget the name) came close to doing the same left his kid daughter standing in a Car Park as a Shetlands winter storm blew in because well because he had this really bril short Story idea. It was the best/worst moment of his life when he dig her apparent lifeless body out of snow drift and she screamed into his face 'I've Got a STUPID Daddy'.

#239 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2009, 07:04 PM:

DM Sherwood, that must have been a pretty scarifying experience for both of them.

It was Mervyn Peake who wrote the Gormenghast/Titus Groan/Titus Alone trilogy (BBC miniseries in 2000), amongst others. There are a couple of books about his life and works too.

I gave up my re-attempted driving nearly 10 years ago when my first illness was giving me dizzy spells & near blackouts. Luckily I live where you don't need taxis to get around, and don't have children to organize.

#240 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2009, 03:15 PM:

At the other end of the spectrum are the times, like this one today, where I'm pretty sure it's not a memory glitch at fault.

#241 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2011, 02:08 PM:

Here's another example of the phenomenon, recently in Italy.


#243 ::: Dave Luckett sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 04:05 AM:

Probe, I think. Aliens should do the same to him.

#244 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2012, 04:46 PM:

I wonder how it all turned out...

#245 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2012, 04:55 PM:

Googling indicates that he was acquitted.

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