Child’s death in a car is a reminder our human mind needs guidelines

By Tran Van Phuc   August 7, 2019 | 07:18 pm PT
The tragic recent death of a Hanoi schoolboy opens our eyes to the blind spots in the brain and memory. But proper protocols and guidelines can help minimize these inherent flaws.
Tran Van Phuc

Tran Van Phuc

The six-year-old boy died on his second day to school. He was abandoned in a school bus on a Hanoi summer day. In his final moments he was all alone.

The boy’s death was certainly tragic. The ones responsible for abandoning him would have to face their own guilt apart from the legal consequences and the social repercussions of their action, or, rather, inaction. But the boy didn’t have to die if only we knew a little better.

Most people would not think they could forget a living being, much less a human child, in a car in the middle of a hot summer day.

It is exactly this presumption that left everyone in shock when news of the boy’s death broke on Tuesday.

Yet, cases of parents forgetting their own children in cars are more common than you think. Many are fatal even.

One child dies in Canada every year due to being left behind in a car without their parents knowing.

Over 800 kids met the same fate between 1998 and 2018 in the U.S. The figure so far this year is 26.

People often do not realize how fast heat can build up in cars and make them deadly contraptions, and that is even more relevant when it comes to children. With less skin surface areas than adults, kids produce less sweat than adults under the same conditions, meaning they cool themselves down less efficiently. If left in a car, a child’s body temperature will rise three to five times faster than an adult’s.

At 40 degrees Celsius, normal organ processes are disrupted. Another degree triggers symptoms similar to that of a sunstroke, while two degrees more could result in a heatstroke, a potentially deadly condition if not treated in time.

Last May the University of California in the U.S. published a research on how fast a car could heat up in hot weather. Six cars were experimented on at 35 degrees Celsius, the same temperature recorded in Hanoi’s Cau Giay District on Tuesday, where the boy died.

When exposed directly to the sun, temperatures in the cars reached 47 degrees Celsius within an hour. That temperature would cause deadly heat stroke to a 2-year-old child left in the car. Under the shade it would take two hours.

Another experiment by the San Francisco State University also in the U.S. found that cars do not fare better even in cool weather. A car even with windows slightly opened in 21 degrees Celsius heated up to 45 degrees in an hour and 49 degrees in two.

A bus belonging to the Gateway International School in Hanoi picks up students. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

A bus belonging to the Gateway International School in Hanoi picks up students. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

I saw a U.S. report on children’s deaths in locked cars every year since 1998, and found that most of the time it was the parents’ fault. They included teachers, doctors, dentists, social workers, police officers, even rocket scientists.

According to David Diamond, a professor in cognitive neuroscience at the University of South Florida, the problem we are dealing with has to do with the human mind and memory.

When we perform actions that are familiar and repetitive to us, our brains go into autopilot, which allow us to perform those actions without conscious thought.

Such a process can normally be useful, but when one is stressed or tired, that ‘autopilot mode’ becomes much less accurate since the brain’s analytical, planning and critical capabilities are reduced.

Despite the wonder that is the human brain, our memories are anything but perfect. While a brain can juggle many different tasks at once under normal circumstances, even a partial loss of that multi-tasking capability can result in someone forgetting even the most important things. Even their own children.

To prevent such tragedies, parents could learn to remember their children’s presence by putting personal items such as bags or phones next to the children, or, alternatively, put the children’s belongings in a place they will definitely see before getting off.

And always, always remember to double-check your cars before leaving.

People sending young children to school should establish a commucation system so they can inform the school when their kids fail to show up to class.

As for schools, especially those which transport their students in their own vehicles, they should have proper protocols and guidelines for teachers, drivers and even parents to make sure every child is safe and accounted for throughout the transportation process.

Failure to do so could cost us more innocent lives.

*Tran Van Phuc is a doctor at St. Paul Hospital in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

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