Helping Overcome Trauma for Children Alone in Rear Seats Act
By: Gabrielle Long
Since 1998, more than 770 infants have died after being accidentally left in the back seat
of a vehicle, leaving hundreds of families devastated. On average, thirty-seven children die each
year trapped in overheated cars. This type of tragedy is particularly prevalent in families in their
early stages, as new parents are not accustomed to checking the back seats of their cars for children
before going about their day. Infants and young children are more susceptible to temperature-related deaths because they are unable to regulate their body temperatures, causing their body
temperatures to heat up three times faster than adults. Today, children three years old or younger
who were unintentionally left in the car by an adult account for approximately eighty-seven percent
of heatstroke deaths. About fifty-four percent of such heatstroke victims were forgotten in a
vehicle and seventeen percent were intentionally left in a vehicle by an adult.
Many believe that children’s death due to abandonment in vehicles is a seasonal issue.
However, this is a common misconception. In reality, the issue is much broader. While it is true
that such tragedies occur more frequently in summer months, deaths occur in other seasons as well.
Children have suffered heatstroke in cars with temperatures as low as sixty degrees Fahrenheit.
According to a vehicle heating study done on sixteen separate dates between May 16, 2002, and
August 8, 2002, with ambient temperatures between seventy-two and ninety-six degrees
Fahrenheit, the temperature of a car can rise nineteen degrees after ten minutes, up to forty-three
degrees within an hour, and up from fifty to fifty-five degrees within two to four hours. Those who
believe that cracking a window can help keep vehicle’s temperatures low are thoroughly mistaken,
as the vehicle heating study also revealed that cracking a window is insufficient to combat rising
temperatures – in fact, it has no impact on the temperature inside a vehicle. Such studies
demonstrate the shocking reality that children left in the back seat of a vehicle must face.
Unfortunately, children’s heatstroke deaths are far too common, and the lack of a standardized
way to alert parents makes it harder to combat this fatal accident.
Any person is capable of forgetting about a child in a rear seat. The media has coined this
phenomenon “Forgotten Baby Syndrome,” a type of memory lapse. Although this terminology is
no longer in use, the concept remains relevant. Dr. David Diamond, a professor of psychology at
the University of South Florida, explains that competing factors in the brain lead to forgetfulness.
The basal ganglia, or brain center, operates on a subconscious level and works independently of
the hippocampus. The hippocampus controls our conscious awareness and works with the frontal
cortex to plan future activities and events. When completing tasks that are part of your everyday
routine, like driving to and from work, your basal ganglia takes over and your brain goes into
“autopilot.” These brain functions, combined with a change in your everyday routine, make it
more likely for a child to be left in the back seat of a car due to a lapse in memory.
Though efforts have been made to educate parents and others who interact with small
children each day of the dangers of leaving children unattended in cars, such efforts alone have
been ineffective in addressing the problem. In recognition of this issue, several states have
attempted to address this problem through legislation. Currently, nineteen states have unattended
child laws that have language specifically addressing the issue of leaving a child unattended in a