Hot Car Deaths – Accident or Homicide?

Since early May when temperatures start to warm in the south, we all start hearing about cases of parents leaving their children in the car where they die of heatstroke. It’s happened already this year in South Texas. The National Safety Council notes these incidences kill an average of 37 children a year.

The council released a report that says 742 U.S. children died of heatstroke in vehicles between 1998 and 2017. Forty-two children died in these conditions in 2017, up from 39 the previous year.

A quick look on the comment section of any hot car death article will show the rage these cases evoke, with many parents stating that there is no way they’d ever forget their child. What most people don’t realize is that it can happen to anyone. While some of these cases are intentional, some are not.

Forgotten Baby Syndrome has been dubbed the psychological phenomenon that causes the real accidental cases of hot car deaths. Dr. David Diamond, neuroscientist and professor of psychology, molecular pharmacology and physiology at the University of South Florida, promotes the scientific studies of the brain that prove Forgotten Baby Syndrome does in fact exist.

He’s been studying the syndrome since 2004 and has served as an expert witness when parents face charges of manslaughter, murder, or child endangerment in these child vehicular heatstroke deaths.

Through his research, Dr. Diamond has developed a hypothesis as to how this unfolds. He explains that when there is competition between the brain’s “habit memory system” and its “prospective memory system”, the habit memory system takes over and Forgotten Baby Syndrome can occur.

According to Dr. Diamond, every day people have specific tasks and habits that when performed enough become routine. Once routine, these actions involve very little conscious thought and are governed by the part of the brain known as the motor cortex. Think about driving the same route each day to work or a place visited often taking the same route. The task can be accomplished with very little thought. Dr. Diamond explains that during this time motor memory is freed up to think about other things while performing the task.

In contrast is the part of the brain responsible for decision making, called the hippocampus, which controls the cognitive portion of the brain. Dr. Diamond has indicated that during a case of Forgotten Baby Syndrome, the motor memory part of the brain competes against the cognitive part of the brain, essentially overruling it.

For example, a person knows that on their trip home from work their spouse has asked them to stop at the grocery store and pick up a few items. They get in the car and begin to travel their normal route home only to arrive there and only remember their intended trip to the store when their spouse asks for the needed groceries. This phenomenon happens as a normal part of brain function and not because there is something wrong with the brain structure. Obviously, a case of Forgotten Baby Syndrome cannot compare to a missed trip to the store but the same memory principles apply.

How to prevent it?

Awareness is the first step in prevention of Forgotten Baby Syndrome as is understanding that it’s an involuntary cognitive response to stress and other factors. Many parents think that it can’t happen to them so they take no precautions at all. As more and more people start talking about Forgotten Baby Syndrome, more people become aware that this can happen to anyone at any time. Leaving something important in the back seat with the baby is a simple preventative step. Having a reminder call from someone to check in that the child was dropped off is another. Anything really can be used as a source of prevention that can save the child’s life.

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