Why do good parents leave their children in hot cars?

Article at a Glance

  • Leaving your baby in the car on a hot day for even a few minutes is enough to cause heatstroke.
  • Parents are more likely to forget their children when their habit memory system suppresses their prospective memory system.
  • Don’t assume you are immune to mistakes, set in place a reminder for when your child is in the car with you.

In Utah it is a class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $750 fine and up to 90 days in jail, to leave your child unattended in the car.

This was mostly meant to be a deterrent for parents who might think they can leave their child in the car for a few minutes while they run an errand.

But children are often left in the car not because their parents meant to, but because they forgot they were in there.

It seems unbelievable that parents could forget their children–leaving them in such a dangerous situation–but it actually has to do with how our brains handle and prioritize our memory.

never leave children in cars

Children are More Susceptible

In 2019, there were 52 pediatric vehicular heatstroke deaths, bringing the total number of pediatric vehicular heatstroke deaths to 850 since 1998.

Although you would never purposefully expose your child to danger, many are not aware of just how quickly the inside of a car can heat up.

A child’s body overheats 3 to 5 times faster than an adult’s, and it can take just minutes for the inside of a car to reach 125 F, even with the windows cracked open.

Leaving your baby in the car on a hot day for even a few minutes is enough to cause heatstroke.

How Our Memory System Works

According to Dr. David Diamond, a professor of Psychology, Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology, we all have a prospective memory system and a habit memory system.

The prospective memory system resides in the parts of the brain that allow for the storing of new information and making plans. We use this system to plan and carry out actions.

The habit memory system is based in the part of the brain that allows us to automatically perform repetitive tasks.

This allows us to do routine things like tying our shoes and riding a bike without even thinking about it. When we drive home or to work a certain way every day, this becomes a repetitive task and our habit memory system takes over. When the habit memory system is activated, it can often suppress the perspective memory system–especially if we are tired, distracted, or stressed.

For example, dad is asked to drop Junior off at daycare on his way to work. It is not part of his routine, so his prospective memory system kicks in as he plans how to get there.

But while traveling the familiar route to work, his habit memory system recognizes the routine and suppresses the prospective memory system. If Junior falls asleep on the way there and is quiet, dad doesn’t get any cues that his son is still back there. There is a chance he might get to work, park his car, and go to his office, forgetting his son is even in the car.

Unfortunately, things like this happen to wonderful parents all the time. We have all probably had similar moments where we plan to get gas on the way home, but get so immersed in the routine of driving home that we completely forget to make the stop. We are all susceptible to this kind of memory failure.

How to Take Precautions

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) there are a number of precautions you can take so that you don’t unintentionally leave your child in the car.

  • Never leave a child in a vehicle unattended – no ifs, ands, or buts.
  • Park, Look, Lock. – Make it a habit to check your entire vehicle – front and back – before locking the door and walking away.
  • Ask your childcare provider to call if your child doesn’t show up for care as expected.
  • Place a personal item like a purse or briefcase in the back seat, as another reminder to look before you lock.
  • Write a note or place a stuffed animal in the passenger’s seat to remind you that a child is in the back seat.
Reviewed on April 30, 2021 by: Jonathen Bartholomew, D.O.
Jonathen Bartholomew, D.O.
Board-certified Pediatrician

As a pediatrician and father of six kids, Dr. Bartholomew has a lot of experience with twins and premature infants. In addition to getting to know his patient families, he enjoys the great outdoors, Dr. Seuss, and BYU football.

Cherry Tree Office
Full Bio

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