Safeguarding Children’s Lives: A Public Health Approach To Preventing Tragedies Of Children’s Deaths In Cars (Part 1) — Dr Erwin Khoo, Dr Ikram Ilias & Prof Dr Zulkifli Ismail

The brain can generate false memories, leading a parent to believe their child is safe at school or home when the child has been forgotten in the back seat of a vehicle. Stress, sleep deprivation, and habit memory can override short-term memory.

Children dying from being left in the cars unknowingly by parents is a tragic and preventable issue that has claimed lives in Malaysia and around the world.

According to a study by the United States’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an average of 38 children die each year in the US from heatstroke after being left in a vehicle.

However, these numbers are likely higher in reality, due to the official cause of death often being attributed to “fever, unspecified” or neglect and abandonment rather than the reported heatstroke.

Similarly, in Malaysia, at least four such cases have caught the attention of the media in the past year, involving children of health care providers aged between 16 months and four years.

Forgotten Baby Syndrome has become disturbingly common, with over 25 per cent of parents with children under 3 years of age reportedly forgetting that their child was in the car.

As parents began heeding advice regarding front-seat airbags, the number of children dying in vehicles at the backseats increased, even surpassing the number of deaths caused by front-seat airbags themselves.

There is a tendency for the public to distance themselves from the rawness of tragedy, distinguishing themselves or their lifestyle from the victim.

Some suggest that the parents who have forgotten their children are single parents, individuals with low income, working parents, or perceived as ‘bad and unfit’ parents who were not as careful as they should have been.

Some will deny the possibility of themselves forgetting their own child in a car, believing that such an incident would never occur to them.

Raising awareness is crucial, beginning with convincing people that this issue could affect anyone.

The parents involved reported in the media are often caring and conscientious, and the incidents are not a result of intentional neglect or abuse, but rather a consequence of human error, stress, distraction, and memory failure.

It is akin to forgetting keys and wallets in a car, and can happen to anyone regardless of class, personality, race, or other traits.

While it is easy to judge and blame the parents for such tragedies, it is more productive and compassionate to look for solutions that can help prevent them from happening again.

As a society, we need to adopt a holistic and multi-pronged approach that involves systemic, technological, and societal interventions.

Science has demonstrated that the brain can generate false memories, leading a parent to believe their child is safe at school or home when the child has been forgotten in the back seat of a vehicle.

Additionally, the field of neuroscience reveals that stress, sleep deprivation, and habit memory can override short-term memory.

Consequently, the most effective strategy to combat the brain’s tendency to forget and fabricate false memories is to promote awareness, prompting all parents to consistently check the backseat every time they exit a vehicle.

Dr Amar Singh and colleagues have proposed leveraging technology to establish safety measures and reminders for parents to check on their children in the car.

Various devices and apps, such as sensors, alarms, cameras, and GPS trackers, can alert parents if they exit the car without their child. It is imperative that these technologies become more accessible and affordable for all parents, potentially through government mandates for their installation in all new vehicles.

In the consumer goods industry, there is a growing movement to emphasise the importance of remembering a child in the car amidst the excitement of new baby products and innovations.

Various solutions have been developed, including clips, sensors, and monitors that can be attached to car seats to alert parents if a child is still in the vehicle.

Additionally, some car seats come equipped with built-in weight sensors and Bluetooth capability to notify parents if their child remains in the seat.

In 2018, Proctor and Gamble launched the “Bag in the Back” campaign to educate parents about placing a bag, purse, computer, or other item in the back seat where the car seat is located, prompting them to open the back door and prevent such tragedies when dropping off the child is out of the normal routine.

However, for these campaigns to be effective, they must become mainstream, tailored to local settings, and reach places like paediatrician’s offices, baby stores, or playground malls for maximum impact.

Collaborations with commercial industries may help raise public awareness and education on the dangers and prevention of vehicular heatstroke in children.

Parents and caregivers should be informed of the best practices, making a habit of looking before locking, and establishing a communication plan with the daycare or school.

For instance, the “Look Before You Lock” campaign by the US Department of Transportation provides tips, resources, and materials for parents, caregivers, and community members to prevent child vehicular heatstroke.

Additionally, the “Kids and Cars” organisation offers a free online education course for parents and caregivers to learn about the risks and solutions of child vehicular heatstroke.

We need to also address the root causes of parental stress and fatigue, which can impair their cognitive abilities and increase the risk of forgetting their children in the car.

This requires creating a more family-friendly and supportive work environment that allows parents to balance their professional and personal responsibilities. Employers could consider offering child care facilities for their employees to alleviate some of the stress.

Moreover, fostering a sense of mutual support and responsibility among the community is crucial. Neighbours, educators, caretakers, colleagues, and friends should be encouraged to look out for one another, offering help or assistance when they notice someone struggling to manage their responsibilities.

Civil society should play an active role in creating a culture of care and vigilance. Additionally, it’s essential to be vigilant and alert, reporting any suspicious or dangerous situations involving children in cars to the authorities.

There should be no hesitation in intervening or acting if a child is seen left alone in a car, as every minute counts in saving a life. This collective effort is necessary to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all children.

Assoc Prof Dr Erwin Khoo is from the International Medical University (IMU), Assoc Prof Dr Ikram Ilias is president of the Malaysian Paediatric Association (MPA), and Prof Dr Zulkifli Ismail is the secretary-general of the Asia Pacific Pediatric Associations (APPA).

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.

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