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USF professor says memory system failures in the brain cause people to leave kids in cars

Posted at 5:12 PM, Mar 18, 2019

Last year was the worst in recorded US history for hot car deaths. says more than 50 children died from heatstroke in 2018.

"I don’t understand how somebody can forget that their child is in the backseat,” said Katie Couch, who has a 15-month-old child.

It’s a common question folks have when they hear about a child dying in a hot car. It creates public outrage, but a new study says it’s an error originating in the brain, and it’s part of being human.

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"I can totally understand how it happens, I forget things in my car all the time and hours go by before I remember that my chicken or my milk is still in the car,” said Rachel Canizares, who also has a young baby.

Dr. David Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida, has been studying the topic since 2004, after he was approached by a reporter asking how someone can do such a thing. At the time, he'd been studying the human brain and how it processes information for decades.

His research shows it comes down to a failure of prospective memory. PM is the process the brains uses to remember to do something in the future. Diamond says a good example of this is forgetting to turn off the headlights in your car, or stopping at the grocery store for a last minute ingredient on your way home from work.

This lack in memory can have a range of consequences and everyone experiences it. He says other factors that contribute to a failure in prospective memory is a lack of sleep, stress, multi-tasking, distractions, and habitual behavior.

"I’m so busy now and you’re so tired as a mother that I could see, when you really sit down and think about it, you can see how it can happen,” said Couch. "It’s terrifying to think that that could happen to me. If anything were to ever happen to her I would die."

Because car seats must be put in the back seat, there’s also a lack of visual or audio cues that allow you to remember a child is back there.

He says habitual behavior can also cause someone to go into “autopilot” mode, losing awareness of what’s happening around them. That can help create false memories of dropping a child off at daycare, for example. He says these false memories can be durable and last for many hours.

"I do like three checks before I get out of the car every day. I’m like OK there’s not a baby with me,” said Canizares.

Diamond says he doesn’t endorse devices or apps on your phone that help remind you a child is in the car because he says most people feel it can’t happen to them, which means they are less likely to purchase those devices.

"I really just feel like that's something that happens to other people, like that doesn’t happen to me. I don’t know,” said Couch.

He says more car manufactures need to install an automatic detection that alerts people there’s still a child in the car. He says it may need to be a joint effort between car manufacturers and car seat manufacturers that would operate off Bluetooth and link up to a child seat buckle.

He says GM has an option in their newer models now that gives a visual and audible alert to people to look in the backseat if the back door was opened and closed before the driver gets into and starts the engine.

“You have sensors that remind you if you left the key in the ignition, so I think why not have a sensor to remind you that there’s a baby in the backseat?” said Canizares.

He says this is a step in the right direction but would like to see other car manufacturers investing in this type of technology.

You can see Dr. Diamond's study here.