Every few years, media attention cycles back to parents accidentally leaving their children in hot cars to die. This pediatric version of Shark Week surfaces each summer in hot states like Arizona, Florida and Texas, but it’s clinging to the spotlight with a vengeance this year.
The current go-around started in mid-June after a Georgia man let his 22-month-old son die of heat stroke in a closed car amid suspicious behavior, like sexting six women as his child lay dying. It made his “forgetting” stink of murder.
So we had yet another mystery involving a dead child.1
We had barely started watching this oaf from Marietta turn on a spit before a new spate of stories on this troubling phenomenon whipped up. July saw almost daily coverage. By now, any potted plant within ten feet of a TV knows about 40 children die in the U.S. every year this way.
As another dozen kids roast to death in hot cars during the rest of the summer, don’t expect headlines to let up. Your local affiliate will even keep you abreast of close calls.
Yes, it’s extremely sad. Each death is a tragedy, to use a word that’s been elasticized almost more than hero. I feel sorry for the children who’ve had their lives stolen, for the families, the baby leavers who didn’t die and want to. I feel sorry for the people who keep videotaping themselves sitting in hot cars.
I’m not a parent, but I still don’t like it when babies die. The same way I don’t like it when kids get blown up in Gaza or turtles get run over. I’m a softie. I’d give a subway rat mouth-to-mouth if I heard that Sarah McLachlan song at a weak moment.
Why it bleeds
In addition to being tragically sad, babies being forgotten in hot cars is a near perfect news topic. It offers:
1. Kids (and secondarily, animals)
2. Morbid novelty of car baking
3. Opportunity to be judgmental and personally freaked out.
The kid factor needs no explanation. (Thousands of dogs also die in hot cars every year, usually left by idiots running some “I’ll just be a minute” errand. There are no hard stats due to shovels.)
Importantly, these aren’t far-off children being killed in hordes by Qassam rockets or Apache missiles; we’re all stocked up with that news this summer. These kids are right here in the States. In the warm months, they die at a rate of about one a week. We can learn their names.
Baby Jessification doesn’t just value the one over the many, it values the weird over the everyday. So boring shit that kills a lot more kids rarely gets big attention.
Smothering. More than 500 babies under a year old are accidentally smothered in bed annually. Of these, roughly 250 infants are killed by an adult rolling on top of them. For each toddler killed in a hot car, 15 are smothered to death.
But smothering a sleeping baby isn’t conducive to the Baby Jessica effect unless you’re doing it on live TV. Its implications are also cognitively tedious. Do the babies suffer? Do they die fast or slow? We all toss in our sleep. Only a sadist, however, would lock a living thing in a hot car.
Smothering feels like it’s in the SIDS department in the baby death store and it just ain’t sexy over there.
Same goes for drowning. About 35 children under age 5 drown in bathtubs every year. Another dozen drown in buckets and pales. Don’t talk to me about pools; more than 100 kids aged 4 and under drown in pools and spas annually. But kids have been drowning for thousands of years. Yawn. How many of these deaths make the news? Ditto for fires, which kill more than 250 kids aged 4 and under each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
If you want to talk guns, firearm accidents kill about 15 children a year that age; another 50 are intentionally shot. But gun accidents were already killing better than 500 kids under 15 annually by 1954, according to some Life reporter who probably died decades ago.2 Guns aren’t as old as fire and water, but they’re getting there.
Hot-car deaths, however, are relatively new. They happened about as often as demonic possessions before people started putting babies in back seats in the 1990s. (If you’re over 25, you probably rode shotgun until you were out of diapers.)
Everyday killers like smothering and drowning can also be imagined to be mercifully swift. We understand these dangers instinctively; they’re snatching tigers. Turn your head and it’s over. Get oblivious for the span of a radio jingle and your child is gone. Your stupidity might be criminal, like killing your kid in an auto crash because you didn’t use a seatbelt or car seat (that snuffs out more than 300 children under 13 every year), but your name probably won’t visit distant dinner tables if the dispatch was speedy and old.
Death via slow baking, however, can only be imagined as agony stretching an eternity. We’re not talking about a radio-jingle death. More like a Three’s Company rerun. You have a good 20 or 30 minutes to bolt outside and stop the Auschwitz machine. That’s a long time.
Most unnervingly, the shattered parents giving firsthand accounts seem disturbingly normal. They aren’t Jerry-Springer types. They don’t look like your typical abusers and shakers. The guy wiping his eye 90 seconds after Matt Lauer says “on a different note” looks like he has a dental plan and a diversified portfolio.
So you can’t mutter “friggin’ lowlifes” and go eat your Pop-Tart. Their alleged failing doesn’t involve heroin or kiddie pageants; these people killed their children because they were busy. Or so says the university egghead sitting next to them.
That’s news nirvana.
Sure, you are about as likely to get into a spontaneous tickle fight with William Shatner this year as you are to kill your kid in a hot car, but it could happen. Throw a few tips on the Chyron—always toss your left shoe in the backseat!—and you’ve got fear you can use.
The cherry is the controversy. For a large chunk of the aghast, the absurdity of “forgetting” a baby—plus the grisly aspects of killing a child this way—destroy any charitable empathy they might otherwise sprinkle on the guilty.
Your potted plant also knows that public opinion diverges into two camps.
The first camp leans toward the “it could happen to anybody” viewpoint, siding with the PhDs that explain how our brains constantly do idiotic, self-destructive things. The conga line of “don’t think it couldn’t happen to you” articles and TV news spots espouse this outlook, as do the many confessions by people who almost killed a child this way. (Like Maria Shriver.)
The second camp veers toward the “fry those sick bastards” verdict, which holds that anyone who leaves a helpless child in an upholstered furnace is either a murderer or a fucked-up creature that should have never reproduced.
“I could not do that to my child, under any circumstances, and cannot fathom how any person could,” second campers declare. 3
This stance irritates me greatly. Even though I understand its genesis.
It irritates me because I am exactly the type of person who would forget a baby.
The killer inside me
I lost $600 by leaving my wallet on a patio table. I was staying at a friend’s apartment and bringing in groceries. I took my wallet out of my pocket to retrieve the entrance keys and then placed it on a smoked-glass table far from the door. Then I forgot this table existed.
I spent an hour searching in profanity-soaked vain. Someone eventually stole the wallet but had the decency to leave my driver’s license; wanting to kill while feeling gratitude is a bizarre sensation.
This jacked-off mental lapse still pisses me off years later. During the grinding minutes in which my brain let me search everywhere but the needed place, that billfold was no less important to me than another human being. I doubt any animalistic instinct was sitting out the hunt.
Perhaps my synapses would have fired with greater skull-cracking intensity had I been searching for a cadaver heart, a beagle with six pups a’suckling or my own newborn. But I’m fairly sure I was at max tolerance. My brain would not cough up the glass table. My white-knuckled “retrace your steps” logic failed and not due to a lack of motivation.
I lose things. The cell phone goes Amelia Earhart a few times a year. I’ve donated three pairs of glasses to the taxi gods. Forgetting my MasterCard in restaurants? Countless.
As the years pass, my mnemonic morning pat down (“spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch…”) has become an urgent roll call.
If I had a toddler, I’d misplace him at least once a season. Upon finding him I’d probably gasp in relief and ask him if he ate the phone charger.
Maybe I should ask about Aricept. But I’ve noticed that ambulatory humans constantly lose their precious possessions. I’ve chased down city blocks to return purses and bags forgotten in restaurants. FedExed phones left in bathrooms and trains. Turned in rings gingerly placed on bathroom sinks. I’m no hero but I’d make Lincoln smile now and again.
Admittedly, I haven’t returned an infant yet.
No sir, that’s my baby
People in the “fry those sick bastards” camp have assured me that such mental lapses do not occur in the realm of protecting one’s child.
“If you’re a caring parent, you could never make that kind of mistake,” at least 20 second campers have said with sanguine certainty. “No normal parent would be that irresponsible.”
I reactively call bullshit.
But I’m bandwagoning; a platoon of experts have loudly declared that any person can perform this fatal act due to memory quirks that bedevil all homo sapiens.
There are white-coat types that specialize in “forgotten baby syndrome.” They will give you detailed explanations about how you could abandon your child to die an agonizing death in a car tomorrow while you answer email or do needlepoint.
Spoiler: Leaving a baby in a hot car is, cognitively, a similar error to leaving a cup of coffee on your auto’s roof after you leave the store parking lot. This comparison infuriates a lot of people, as did the Georgia man’s defense attorney comparing a baby to restaurant leftovers in the bail hearing. (Bad move; bail denied.)
To put it simplistically, your brain goes on autopilot when you’re doing routine tasks, and most perpetrators are performing a routine task (i.e., driving to work) that usually does not include the child or contains some small, atypical element (i.e., today, you need to run an errand before you drop little Frederick off at daycare).
The novelty of having the baby onboard, or that small unusual feature, triggers “must remember this” cognition in one area of your brain while your ho-hum autopilot processes keep firing elsewhere. These two brain centers wrestle for control.
You don’t notice this. It’s like tying your shoes while thinking about your grocery list. Colloquially, in 99,999,997 car trips out of a hundred million, those subliminal tweets from your novelty neurons or some external trigger (“I gotta poo!”) will keep your day unmemorable. A couple times they’ll act late and cost you bowel control, but you’ll stay out of interrogation rooms.
That last trip is a bitch.
To satisfy my curiosity as to why the wondrous organ that gave us seedless grapes and multiverse theory cannot prioritize between its offspring and a cup of Wawa coffee (much less design a satisfactory lid for said cup), I reached out to a few experts on my own. Here’s that Q&A.
You’ll see that one expert disagrees. It illustrates how tenaciously some deeply educated people can cling to personal beliefs despite the prominence of detailed information pointing to opposite conclusions. That’s either admirable or shameful, depending on where your own sentiments lay.
“If you were a parent…”
Many second campers are, indeed, moved by the explanations.
Others hold firm.
“No,” they insist. “It could not happen to a normal parent.”
This fascinates me.
Not having children destroys my capacity to judge this disgusting act of slaughter, according to several inhabitants of the “fry those bastards” camp. Had I even one measly child, gazed even once into the just-opened eyes of my own DNA, I’d gain the cellular understanding that only derelicts or murderers could leave their baby in an oven with bucket seats—regardless of what any “experts” might tell you.
They might be right.
I might change my opinion if I became a parent, because I may personally “feel” unable to do such an unthinkable thing. But then I, too, would probably so biased I wouldn’t see the truth if it peed on me.
I wondered what would change stubborn minds. I created a wholly unscientific online survey that asked which scenarios would force a responder to believe that “a normal, caring parent could easily forget their child in a hot car on any given day.” The ten hypotheticals ran from “a celebrity you like or admire forgets a child in a hot car” to “you, personally, forget your child in a hot car.”
Almost all second campers chose this answer:
I found this stunning. Initially.
Are they joking? I thought. They are, in effect, saying nothing could change their mind. To me, this shoves the evolutionary gift of the cerebral cortex down the garbage disposal.
We hear different questions
A problem in my thinking quickly became obvious. The first and second campers may be reading identical words, but they’re likely hearing different questions. For example, when being asked…
first campers probably hear
but second campers hear
First campers see a sin of omission. Some liken it to forgetting a pot simmering on a stove; it could result in a burned pot or a dead family. In either case, you forgot to turn a dial. Forgetter A loses a pot. Forgetter B spends 25 years getting raped against cement walls. Is that justice?
Second campers hear the second translation and can’t understand how any sentient creature could ignore the groin-kicking catch 22: a parent who would bludgeon their child is not a normal parent.
They see a grotesque sin of commission. Active killing. Even if some derelict truly forgets the child—a claim fry-‘ems don’t swallow easily—that degenerate is, at minimum, guilty of the heinous act of forgetting a human being. And they must be punished with karmic retribution.4 Perhaps by being baked themselves, as several second campers will suggest.
My survey sucks
First, he says, it asked people how they’d hypothetically react to evidence instead of giving them the evidence and assessing their reaction. People have no clue how their mindset will change in hypothetical situations. It’s like asking you what you’ll think the moment after an arrow is shot through your head.
“People are very bad at predicting if they’ll change their minds,” Mercier says. If you feel certain about something, you may sincerely believe that nothing would alter your position. But that theoretical belief is horseshit, because you would quickly adjust your thinking if you’re exposed to the right stimulus. Namely, info that satisfies your counterarguments, sways your peers or makes you feel foolish.
You just can’t imagine such an occurrence happening. It’s a normal human limitation.5
Secondly, the survey should have quantified the strength of the beliefs. Had I asked, “on a scale of 1 to 100, how likely do you think it is that a normal, caring parent could leave a baby in a hot car to die on any given day?,” even the most intractable second campers likely would have gone from 0 to 20 percent after reading an expert’s testimony.
“It’s really hard to not be influenced by an argument,” says Mercier. The bottom-line answer may remain unchanged (“this would not happen to a normal parent”), but conviction would be measurably weakened—at least temporarily. In the immediate aftermath of hearing a credible argument that contradicts their belief, very few people remain unmoved. 6
And that’s laudable.
“Changing your mind is not a trivial thing,” says Mercier. Evolutionarily, we’re programmed to promote and strengthen our predetermined position when we discuss anything. So we cherry pick info that supports our premise and scan opposing arguments for weak points to attack rather than for strengths.7 We look for info to devalue—and often strenuously resist conversion—because being forced to change an important belief can trigger a mini existential crisis.
To make evolving less painful, when you do change your mind, the old you evaporates. We’re quickly stricken with a face-saving amnesia regarding the intensity of our former position, Mercier explains. People who once screamed in red-faced fury against some issue will say, “well, internally, I wasn’t really that opposed to it. I was more on the fence.”
The amnesia is genuine. Just as you can’t imagine changing your mind, you can’t natively revisit prior thinking in your head. You can conjure a caricature of it, but that perfect tooth-in-groove logic that once supported your former position is no longer findable, in the same way that you can’t unsee the other woman or the Rubin faces.
Had my survey been done differently, says Mercier, I would have probably been shocked at how many second campers changed their opinions—and then disavowed ever having been truly hardcore second campers.
That said, if the Georgia man’s trial shows little Cooper Harris was willfully tortured and murdered on June 18, 2014, when his father left him in a sun-beaten SUV for seven hours on a 92-degree day, I’m sure many first campers will look less forgivingly upon the next baby baker they see on CNN.
Nobody wants to feel like a fool.
1 It helped that the dad was a white IT worker with a big-toothed smile that suggests a grandparent got too close to a Kennedy. His cutey-pie wife is a little too innocent-looking, too. It’ll disappoint many gawkers if it turns out to really be an accident.
2 In the March 26, 1956 issue of Life (pages 131-134), the story “Drawing a Bead on Safety” stated, “in 1954 more than 550 U.S. children under 15 were killed in accidents involving the careless handling of firearms….” In 2011, the CDC reported just 74 “unintentional firearm deaths” among American kids that age.
That’s greater than a seven-fold drop in fatal gun accidents among kids in six decades—something the Life.com slideshow commentary failed to mention. About as many kids under 15 were killed by gun accidents in 1954 as were total Americans of all ages in 2010 (606).
I found this remarkable. The U.S. population doubled in that time, from about 151,325,000 in 1950 to 308,745,000 in 2010, so it seemed extraordinary that the real number of fatal gun accidents could have dropped so profoundly.
Maybe I had some naive, nostalgic notion that back in the Leave It to Beaver years, if you were lucky enough to survive polio, drunk drivers and a few awesome toys, you didn’t have to worry about having your cowlick accidentally blown off significantly more than kids do today. People who like to paint present-day America as a dystopian hellhole might also have this notion.
I was wrong. Fatal gun accidents were incredibly more prevalent in the 1950s. They killed 2,281 Americans of all ages in 1954 (see page 33 in this link), compared to just 591 in 2011, according to the CDC’s injury statistic database.
Why the decline? The falling rate of gun ownership seems like an easy explanation, but it’s an inadequate one; even if you exaggerate the Gallup survey stats and assume gun ownership has dropped from 50 percent to 20 percent of American households in the last 60 years (which it likely hasn’t), that’s still 75 million households with guns in 1950 and about 62 million in 2010.
Advances in emergency medicine probably explain part of the decline. Gun-statistic aficionados have also suggested that a decrease in the popularity of hunting since the 1950s is playing a big role, as is the related drop in rifle and shotgun ownership (which are more likely to inflict a fatal wound than handguns). Perhaps better safety measures (like trigger locks) are also helping. I’m sure helicopter parenting is doing its part.
While gun-accident deaths have plummeted in the last 60 years, gun homicides among kids have not. In 1954, there were 4,115 deaths due to “assault by firearms and explosives” in the U.S.; 126 were children aged 0-14. In 2011, there were 11,066 gun homicides; 217 were aged 0-14. And we’re way down from the nightmarish peaks of 20-plus years ago (1993 saw 18,253 gun homicides, with 543 aged 0-14). Today, our overall homicide rate is back down to where it was in the 1950s. The causes of the infamous rise in homicides from the 1960s through 1990s are still being debated, as are theories for its mysterious fall.
3 Yes, it’s the red and blue crap. You’ve correctly intuited that this disagreement often pits liberals against conservatives. My unscientific survey found that first campers are more likely to be pro-choice on abortion and second campers skew pro-life, for one indication.
To make generalizations, the person with the “keep honking, I’m reloading” bumper sticker probably isn’t going to tell you that letting a baby die in a hot car is just a terrible accident, and the person with a “bad cop, no donut” sticker probably won’t suggest sending baby bakers to Guantanamo.
4 We view justice as karmic retribution. It governs our thinking about crime and punishment. Simply, you will be forced to give up what you took away. It’s Hammurabi’s “an eye for an eye,” even when it’s softened to include cleaning toilets at a homeless shelter.
Forgetting your toddler in a hot car puts karmic retribution in a migraine-inducing gray zone. In most cases, the all-important mens rea doesn’t lend itself to straightforward legal negligence, as you have when a person consciously practices bad judgment (“I’ll just leave Sadie here for a minute while I run in and buy a drill”).
Frustratingly, most baby bakers engage in no judgment whatsoever; they’re in a state of oblivion when the crime is committed. The parent has no idea the child is in the car. Even the last-resort charge of depraved indifference doesn’t fit neatly. You need to be at least this much (fingers nearly touching) cognizant of a danger before you can be depravedly indifferent to it.
This makes legal savants slowly rock in corners.
The ancient standard of law—would a reasonable person do this—offers no help. Modern scientists are too adamant: a reasonable human will slip in and out of this oblivious state with great frequency. In rare circumstances, oblivion meets a tiny, waiting disaster cascade. And you need a three-foot coffin.
5 Second campers also balk for another natural reason; they’re being asked to believe a counterintuitive butterfly effect (i.e., dropping off dry cleaning can make you kill your infant). Humans have difficulty accepting butterfly effects, Mercier points out. They’re absurd at a glance. Common sense tells us that tsunamis come from massive earthquakes and dead babies come from brutal killers. When this isn’t so, you’d better have a whiteboard handy.
6 Unless you are an elected representative in the United States government, you say. Then you can display immovability that defies all forces.
Actually, despite all the furious horn locking, people in Congress change their minds all the time. You call it “evolving” if you like the person and “flip-flopping” if you don’t.
Look at global warming and gay marriage. Fifteen years ago, a majority of Americans heard “Bigfoot” and “abomination.” Today, the majority hear “some sciencey-ass weather problem” and “who gives a shit?” Many elected reps have silently followed suit, and no shortage of congressional lions have done the “I’ve thought anew” thing while biting their lower lip. Some moderates have gone radical; that’s mind-changing, too.
Fence jumping may cause some embarrassment for a work-a-day person, but they can usually avoid the sensitive subject. If you’ve been vomiting vitriol on the Senate floor for 24 years, however, and a super PAC or constituency of sandaled hippies or assault rifle collectors is holding a metaphorical knife to your throat and saying “there will be no thinking anew,” evolving gets complicated.
Better to keep your enlightenments to yourself.
7 You probably call this “life at the office.”
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