An illustration of a kid in a hot car with a thermometer next to the image.
Illustration: John Ritter

If parents think they would never forget their child in a hot car, they should think again. It can happen to anyone.

In 2019, 52 children died in hot cars, according to NoHeatStroke.org. One of the most well-publicized cases involved 1-year-old twins left in their father’s vehicle while he was at work as a social worker at a Veterans Affairs hospital in the Bronx borough of New York City. Of the cases recorded in 2019, almost half of the children were left behind unknowingly by their caregiver. 

A leading expert in cognitive neuroscience who has studied the role of memory in such tragedies has found that the stresses parents face in everyday life can make these memory lapses more likely. 

Forgetting a child is not a negligence problem but a memory problem, says David Diamond, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

“The most common response is that only bad or negligent parents forget kids in cars,” Diamond says. “It’s a matter of circumstances. It can happen to everyone.”

During the summer, many families change their daily routines for vacations or other reasons, and that disruption is a common factor in these tragic incidents, Diamond’s research found.

More on Traveling With Children

“The worst thing any parent or caregiver can ever do is to think that something like this could never happen to them or someone in their family,” says Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsandCars.org, a group that tracks these incidents.  

The tragedies occur at an alarming rate, and they cover a range of circumstances. The 2019 victims in the U.S. spanned from 2 months to 13 years old, beginning in April, according to KidsandCars.org. (In 2018, the first recorded tragedy occurred in February.)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that, on average, a child dies from vehicular heatstroke every 10 days.

KidsandCars.org’s heatstroke fact sheet highlights that caregivers involved in these incidents come from many walks of life. They include teachers, dentists, social workers, law enforcement officers, nurses, clergymen, military officers, and even a rocket scientist. These tragic cases can happen to anyone, regardless of their education or socioeconomic status. 

And it’s not just a summertime problem: Even on days with mild temperatures, the heat inside a closed vehicle can reach dangerous levels within an hour, posing major health risks to small children or pets left inside, Consumer Reports’ testing shows.

How the Brain Functions

Diamond says the issue involves two parts of a person’s working memory: prospective and semantic. Prospective memory helps us remember to do something in the future, while semantic allows drivers to make the trip from work to home on “autopilot,” where they arrive without remembering clear details of how they got there.

Prospective and semantic memories work together to help us make changes to our routines; these changes could include things such as “drop off the baby at day care” or “stop for groceries on the way home.” When the working memory fails, such as when we’re distracted or stressed, there can be catastrophic implications, Diamond says. He gave examples of situations where critical safety steps can be overlooked, such as a surgeon leaving tools in a patient, a pilot not setting the wing flaps for landing, and caregivers forgetting that there’s a baby in the car.

“The habit brain system is a great convenience that allows us to go into autopilot,” Diamond says. “The beauty of it is that we don’t have to remember every turn, but the problem is that it’s actually guiding our behavior. When it guides our behavior, it suppresses the other part of the brain that is supposed to remind us of additional information.”

“We have to accept the fact that our brain multitasks. And as a part of that multitasking, the awareness of a child can be lost,” Diamond says. “We have to accept that the human memory is flawed. That includes when loving, attentive parents lose awareness of their children when they are in a car.”

Since 1998, 850 children have died from heatstroke in cars, according to NoHeatStroke.org. Diamond has studied many of these cases and, at the 2018 Lifesavers Conference on Highway Safety Priorities in San Antonio, he presented a few factors that commonly occurred: change in routine, stress, and sleep deprivation.

Many times, when a child died, there had been a change in the day’s routine, Diamond says. For example, a parent who wouldn’t normally be responsible for day-care drop-off might have been given that task that day. Because our brains recognize a pattern for the day, this parent would drive to work as usual, even though the baby was along for the ride. And unless there was an external cue, such as seeing the diaper bag or hearing the baby, the parent’s brain would continue on autopilot and could even create a false memory that the child is safely at day care, Diamond found. Sleep deprivation and stress can also increase the potential for a working-memory failure.

Conflicts between semantic and prospective memory are normal, Diamond says. His research has shown that they happen to everyone—not just parents and caregivers—on almost a daily basis. The added stress, distraction, and sleep deprivation that parents often face can contribute to tragic situations.

What You Can Do

The first step to preventing these hot-car tragedies is for parents and caregivers to understand that human memory is faulty and that these memory failures can happen to anyone. The key to avoiding such incidents is for people to use strategies aimed at overcoming memory lapses. “The strategies need to be child-specific,” Diamond says. “When you have a child in the car, do something unique.”

Some strategies from the CR car seat team include:

  • Create safeguards. One idea is an agreement such as Ray Ray’s Pledge, whereby parents promise to notify child-care providers if their child is going to be late or absent. In return, the child-care providers pledge to notify parents if children do not arrive at their usual drop-off time.
  • Set reminders on your phone to check with your spouse or partner to make sure he or she has dropped off the child.
  • Create visual reminders. Place the child’s diaper bag, jacket, or hat in the front passenger seat.
  • Force yourself to go to the backseat. Keep your backpack, lunch box, or briefcase there every day.
  • Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle for any length of time, regardless of the outside temperature. Vehicles can quickly heat up to potentially fatal levels on even mild-temperature days.

“Education is very important, but education alone won’t end these tragedies,” says Fennell at KidsandCars.org. “It’s going to take education along with technology to help our imperfect brains.”

You can also invest in a vehicle or car seat with integrated reminder technology, such as the General Motors’ Rear Seat Reminder or SensorSafe from Goodbaby, the parent company of Evenflo and Cybex. Consumer Reports experts have evaluated these technologies and found that integrated systems that default to “on,” rather than needing to be activated by the driver, are the most beneficial. (The concern is that most parents don’t believe a hot-car tragedy could happen to them and therefore might not choose to turn on a protective feature.)

“When my now-16-year-old son was an infant, this almost happened to us,” says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at CR’s Auto Test Center. “My husband was responsible for dropping our son at day care one day, which was not his normal routine. He drove far past the day care, and only when our son made some noise did he realize his mistake. Even if you can’t imagine making such an error, I encourage parents to use the tips we provide to safeguard their children.”

Concerned parents can contact federal lawmakers at congress.gov to urge them to support the bill known as the Hot Cars Act. The bill would require cars to come equipped with technology that alerts drivers if a child is left in the backseat after the ignition is turned off. It’s endorsed by Consumer Reports.