Why Do Hot Car Deaths Still Keep Accidentally Happening?

There's a lot of uncertainty that comes with parenthood but there is one thing that most moms and dads are positive of: they would never forget their infant or toddler in the car for hours.

Yet as the hot weather rolls in, so do the tragic stories of children dying from heatstroke because their parents accidentally left them in sweltering vehicles. Although this happens to an average of 37 children a year, the general public tends to rationalize the risk away or judge the parents instead of understanding a real cause of some of these horrific events: Forgotten Baby Syndrome.

This syndrome occurs when an adult doesn't remember that a child is in the car. It can take less than 15 minutes for a car's temperature to hit 109 degrees in Summer months and if you've ever wondered what type of parents could possibly forget their child in a hot car, look no further than Gene Weingarten's Pulitzer-winning piece on the issue for the Washington Post:

The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last ten years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

According to NoHeatStroke.org, there was a 62.5 percent rise in the number of child vehicular heatstroke deaths in the United States from 2015 to 2016 despite the increased awareness of these tragedies. David Diamond, who is a professor of psychology, molecular pharmacology, and physiology at the University of South Florida, Tampa, knows that it usually comes down to Forgotten Baby Syndrome and points out why parents may be more vulnerable to it than they realize.

Instead of brushing these stories aside as something that only happens to bad parents or trusting that you could never capable of such a heinous mistake, Diamond, who has been studying these cases since 2004, wants parents to finally understand that it happens to all types of people, not typically the abusive, uncaring, or negligent caretakers.

After years of extensive research, Diamond concluded that this syndrome results from a competition between the brain's "habit memory system" and "prospective memory system." He explained that the habit memory deals with routine tasks that are performed automatically and that prospective memory deals with both planning and executing a future task.

"[The habit memory system] allows you to do things without thinking about it. That plan we have to stop a habit seems to get suppressed. We lose awareness of our plan to interrupt that habit," Diamond told ABC News. "These different brain systems actually compete against each other."

This means that when you are changing your daily habit (like driving to work) to do something you don't normally do (like drop off your child at daycare when someone else typically does that), the part of your brain that's accounting for this change of plans can be overpowered by the part that handles your engrained routines.

"It happens, for example, when we forget to interrupt a drive home to stop at the store for groceries," Diamond wrote in an article for The Conversation. "In this case, the habit memory system takes us directly home, suppressing our awareness (prospective memory) that we had planned to stop at the store."

Diamond shared that although all of the unfortunate cases are different, many have factors in common that include a change in a parent's routine. This could range from being in charge of dropping off at daycare for the first time to the child falling asleep so the parents don't hear or see them before they lose awareness that the child is still in the car. He blames this "flawed" prospective memory for putting children — no matter how much a parent loves them — at risk of being forgotten. "This is especially true when we assume that precautions are not necessary because such tragedies happen only to negligent parents," he wrote. "The evidence is clear that this assumption is wrong."

Other similar elements that Diamond has identified across the cases are stress, distractions before or during the drive, and sleep deprivation. "The stress and sleep deprivation factors are important, as they are known to bias brain memory systems toward habit-based activity and to impair prospective memory processing," he wrote. "Ultimately, all or a subset of these factors have caused parents to follow a well-traveled route, controlled by their brain habit memory system, that did not include stopping at the daycare."

Diamond found that in all of the cases he's researched, the parent's brain created a "false memory" that he or she had dropped the child off at daycare. This explains why a photo of the child at their desk or a lack of memory from the morning drop off didn't alert them to an issue earlier in the day. "The hijacking of prospective memory by habit memory, and the parent's loss of awareness of a child's presence in the car, is a tragic way for us to learn how the brain can malfunction when it is in 'memory multi-tasking mode,'" Diamond wrote. "There is no indication in the cases I have studied that these parents demonstrated an act of willful recklessness or gross negligence for the child's welfare."

In order to prevent this from happening to you, the first step is recognizing that it actually can. "Many strategies have been suggested, such as using a phone app linked to an occupied car seat, but most people refuse to take any precautionary measures because they believe this could never happen to them, a potentially fatal mistake," Diamond wrote.