Lyn Balfour was hysterical when she realized she left her infant son, Bryce, in the car on March 30, 2008.
“I was screaming and I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way I forgot my son. There’s just no way’,” Balfour told WJLA.
The Virginia mother deviated from her routine that day and forgot to drop her son at daycare before heading to work. She didn’t realize her mistake until the afternoon.
It was only 66 degrees that day, but Bryce died — and unfortunately, Balfour’s experience isn’t a unique one. Hot car deaths claim an average of 37 children a year, according to the safety organization Kids and Cars.
And July is the biggest month for hot car deaths.
Why do hot car deaths happen?
Many parents believe that they’d never forget their child. Balfour was one of those parents.
“No matter how hard it would be, over and over again, to relive this situation and the events of the day, I would tell my story as many times as I could, to make sure that his death wasn’t for nothing,” Balfour told WJLA said. “Because I was one of those parents that said, ‘This could never happen to me’.”
But, how do they happen?
“It has nothing to do with love or lack of love,” David Diamond, a professor at the University of South Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times. Diamond is the expert on hot car deaths and said the increase coincided with the introduction of air bags, requiring children to be in the back seat of the car.
Instead, most car deaths happen when there’s a change in a daily routine. Balfour was distracted with a work phone call before she left her son in the car. Another mother in Oregon left her child in the car when she decided to take him to daycare to let her husband sleep.
“Imagine a parent who 100 percent of the time goes from home, takes the child to daycare and goes back home,” Diamond told the newspaper. “Obviously, they’re not going to forget because that’s their routine. If you have another parent that 100 percent of the time goes from home to daycare to work, you never see that routine fail.”
Children’s bodies heat up three to five times faster than adults, according to Vanderbilt University. The interior temperature of a car is much higher than that of the outdoors, even on a mild day — and once a child’s internal temperature reachers 104 degrees, the organs begin to shut down.
The hard truth, according to Diamond, is that “We have a brain system that allows us to operate on autopilot.”
“People hate when I compare forgetting children to forgetting other things, but the process is the same,” he said. “As hard as it is to appreciate, we lose awareness of children as easily as we lose awareness of other things.”
How to prevent hot car deaths
There are many tech gadgets designed to help prevent hot car deaths to varying degrees of success. You can also use low-tech reminders to help you remember your child in the back seat.
“If you’re not doing the typical routine, if you’re doing anything slightly out of the ordinary, then put something unique to your child in the front seat,” Diamond said. “Then you’ll have a reminder.”
Other tips include putting one of your shoes in the backseat so you’re reminded once you get out of the car. Though driving barefoot is illegal in some states, it could save your child’s life.
Most of all, the way to prevent hot car deaths is to realize it can happen to anyone.
“When people accept that they could forget their child, it’s almost as if they’re saying they don’t love their child enough,” Diamond told the Tampa Bay Times. “But I know this is not about the love a parent feels for their child.”