Sunday, April 18, 2010

Left in the car

I had an interesting experience last Friday. As noted in my previous post, I was visiting my grandparents this weekend to help with their annual rummage sale. I stayed up almost all night Thursday reading various articles, including "Fatal Distraction", which just won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. One of the last things I did was post a link to it on my personal Facebook and Twitter before finally going to bed. I knew I would only get about ninety minutes of sleep before having to throw my morning hygiene routine in a bag, eat breakfast, and hit the road, I was unconcerned. I would just sleep through the six hour drive and arrive more or less with a full night's sleep under my belt.

For the most part, I managed it. I woke up whenever we got off the highway to stop at a store or a restaurant, and a couple times when my neck lolled off at an awkward angle. However, our final pre-destination stop, I didn't wake up. We had planned all along to stop at the last town to pick up some barbeque to bring for dinner. Since I didn't wake up, my parents decided to leave me alone and let me sleep, considerately cracking a window for ventilation.

I woke up briefly after maybe ten minutes, just long enough to see that yes, the window was open and register the obnoxious mariachi music being blasted from the taco stand ten feet away. (Apparently mariachi music gives me weird dreams, too, but that's irrelevant to this story.) I dozed back off, only to reawaken fully ten minutes later, drowsily awake and parched with thirst. Fortunately, I had about half of a one liter steel bottle right next to me, and I quickly drained it. I sat there a minute, still a little out of it and realizing I was still warm. I was on the sunny side of the car and the two inch vent wasn't doing much for me. Of course I can't leave the car with that big of an opening in a strange neighborhood, so I stayed put and sent my Dad a somewhat disgruntled text requesting that I be given at least two cracked windows on future occasions so I could have a breezeway. I opened the door and waited, enjoying the fresh air outside, but not enough to negate the stifling air inside, or my dark wash jeans and black shirt. The temperature was only in the upper 60s or low 70s. After a third ten minute period, I called to see what was taking so long just as they were getting the food. They returned and we headed down the road the final twenty mintues to my grandparents. It took me more than that ride time to feel like I was able to fully cool down again.

The upside of this story is that I'm an able-bodied 28 year old woman and if I had found myself in true ditress I could have abandoned the car for a breezy spot with some shade, even begged or bought some water from the taco stand. I can be trusted not to wander into the busy street beside me if I do get out of the car. I know how to work a cell phone, car horn, and door locks if I need to alert my parents, or go out of sight of the vehicle. I was uncomfortable, but out of danger.

The downside would have been if somehow I was twenty-five years younger, give-or-take a few. Whether forgotten or intentionally left to rest with even a cracked window, a small child's poor self-regulation would have put it in danger far more quickly than myself. Even a child developed enough to get out of a car seat could have been in trouble without the knowledge of how to honk the horn or unlock the doors to escape (hopefully not into the street.) I know, because it happened to me.

When I was about three or four years old, my family was on another trip to visit old friends in Oregon. We decided to go to dinner one night, the group including my parents, my maternal grandmother, our hostess, and my siser who was about ten at the time. This was back before air bags and legislation insisting children sit in the back seat, but with so many adults in the car, I sat there anyway. (Only since the advent of passenger side air bags posing a danger to youngsters in the front seat have so many children been forgotten in the back.) Everyone got out of the car thinking that someone else had gotten me. No one had, and I still vividly remember watching them close the doors and walk away across the parking lot. I think at first I found it funny, until I tried to open the doors and discovered they were locked. I didn't know how to open them. I panicked, climbing into the front seat and pounding frantically on the window, screaming for them to come back. They never heard me, and I watched the restaurant door close behind them. My grandmother realized I wasn't there within about a minute, and they returned. They taught me how to work the door locks and the horn, in case it ever happened again. Fortunately, it never did, but if it had, I knew what to do, and the story had a happy ending.

Now a quarter century later, I hear heartbreaking news stories every year about children accidentally left in their parents' cars, and I still think about my own experience being forgotten. It can happen to anyone, even the most intelligent, mindful, watchful, organized, caring, attentive parent or caregiver. It can happen to grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, next door neighbors, and parents' best friends. It can happen to a person who's alone, or it can happen to a group. It tends to happen in warm months, but it can also happen in winter (as we learned a couple Christmases ago with an unfortunate intended pet fish that was left in my sister's van over night. Poor fish.) It can happen anytime someone gets distracted.

Even if you never leave your child in the car, it is still wise to teach them what to do as soon as they're old enough. I don't know that I would recommend teaching very young children how to unlock the door. A young child who doesn't know better (or even one that does) could get panicky, overly confused, or curious and find their way into a street or parking lot, or wander far from the car in search of parents and become lost in unfamiliar territory. However, I do think that teaching a child how to work the car horn is smart, especially if they are able to learn how to use it in an irregular pattern. A regular pattern could sound like a standard car alarm that people tend to ignore without investigation. The horn gives a trapped child a "voice" that reaches beyond the insulated glass and metal confines of the vehicle.

Of course, that doesn't solve every problem. Most children caught in these tragic situations are tiny, infants and toddlers, too helpless to protest or escape in time to save their lives. I was fortunate, being old enough and able to move around the car; even if they hadn't come back immediately, I surely could have gotten the attention of some passing stranger. How do we protect our little ones and prevent these tragedies?

What if cars had ventilation fans? Self-contained roof units, powered by solar panels, could turn on whenever the internal temperature reaches dangerous levels, evacuating excess heat without the theft danger of an open window or sunroof and without draining the battery. This could be an independent function or linked with a child weight sensor in the seat. "Fatal Distraction" mentions that such weight sensors have already been conceived to set off an alarm when the engine turns off. Once I get my retail situation going at the salon, I will be offering simple but effective tags that can be hung from keychains or carrier handles (when out of the car) to act as a bright visual reminder of "Where's Baby?" There are certainly several ideas that could be successfully used to prevent these tragic deaths, so why haven't they been widely implemented? Why have they not burst as suddenly and universally across the auto industry as the air bags that brought this situation to prominence? Our cars should be safe for everyone, big and small, front seat and back seat, in motion or at a stand still.

Jena Vincent of Abundance Massage

1 comment:

  1. It's heartwrenching for me, imagining those poor little kids, strapped into those seats with their "safe" 5 point harness...sure, I realize that car crashes are more common than leaving the kid in the car, but can you imagine being left in the car and STRAPPED DOWN the way they are? It's horrifying. No wonder the one child in the article had pulled out all her own hair. It's grisly, but perhaps that's what it takes for parents to realize how serious this is. I think some of them ARE starting to realize it--the average has been 37 children per year over the last decade, but if you look at each year's numbers, the last couple of years have been closer to 20 kids. Not that 20 is good, but it's down a lot from 37. I can only hope that raising awareness will help more parents take safety precautions. They give birth in fancy hospitals, they use expensive 5-point harness carseats...the least they can do is make a habit of always leaving their purse in the backseat so that they always have to look back there when leaving the car...

    Incidentally, my son is 3 1/2, and very bright with good coordination and so on, but he can't get his booster seat unbuckled himself--it's too stiff a buckle. I've showed him how, he knows how, but he can't get it himself.