Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fatal Distraction by Gene Weingarten
Forgetting a child in the back seat of a hot, parked car is a horrifying, inexcusable mistake. But is it a crime?

(via Rod Dreher)
There is no national clearinghouse for cases of infant hyperthermia, no government agency charged with data collection and oversight. The closest thing is in the basement office of a comfortable home in suburban Kansas City, Kan., where a former sales and marketing executive named Janette Fennell runs a nonprofit organization called Kids and Cars. Kids and Cars lobbies for increased car safety for children, and as such maintains one of the saddest databases in America.

Fennell is on a sofa, her bare feet tucked under her, leafing through files. Amber, her college intern, walks up and plops a fax of a new wire service story on the table. "Frontover," Amber says. "Parking lot, North Carolina."

There's a grisly terminology to this business. "Backovers" happen when you look in the rearview mirror and fail to see the child behind the car, or never look at all. "Frontovers" occur almost exclusively with pickups and SUVs, where the driver sits high off the ground. There are "power window strangulations" and "cars put in motion by child" and, finally, "hyperthermia."

In a collage on Fennell's wall are snapshots of dozens of infants and toddlers, some proudly holding up fingers, as if saying, "I'm 2!" Or "I'm 3!" The photos, typically, are from their final birthdays.

Fennell has met or talked with many of the parents in the hyperthermia cases, and some now work with her organization. She doesn't seek them out. They find her name, often late at night, sleeplessly searching the Web for some sign that there are others who have lived in the same hell and survived. There is a general misconception, Fennell says, about who these people are: "They tend to be the doting parents, the kind who buy baby locks and safety gates." These cases, she says, are failures of memory, not of love.

Fennell has an expression that's half smile, half wince. She uses it often.

"Some people think, 'Okay, I can see forgetting a child for two minutes, but not eight hours.' What they don't understand is that the parent in his or her mind has dropped off the baby at day care and thinks the baby is happy and well taken care of. Once that's in your brain, there is no reason to worry or check on the baby for the rest of the day."

Fennell believes that prosecuting parents in this type of case is both cruel and pointless: It's not as though the fear of a prison sentence is what will keep a parent from doing this.

The answer to the problem, Fennell believes, lies in improved car safety features and in increased public awareness that this can happen, that the results of a momentary lapse of memory can be horrifying.

What is the worst case she knows of?

"I don't really like to . . ." she says.

She looks away. She won't hold eye contact for this.

"The child pulled all her hair out before she died."

For years, Fennell has been lobbying for a law requiring back-seat sensors in new cars, sensors that would sound an alarm if a child's weight remained in the seat after the ignition is turned off. Last year, she almost succeeded. The 2008 Cameron Gulbransen Kids' Transportation Safety Act -- which requires safety improvements in power windows and in rear visibility, and protections against a child accidentally setting a car in motion -- originally had a rear seat-sensor requirement, too. It never made the final bill; sponsors withdrew it, fearing they couldn't get it past a powerful auto manufacturers' lobby.

There are a few aftermarket products that alert a parent if a child remains in a car that has been turned off. These products are not huge sellers. They have likely run up against the same marketing problem that confronted three NASA engineers a few years ago.

In 2000, Chris Edwards, Terry Mack and Edward Modlin began to work on just such a product after one of their colleagues, Kevin Shelton, accidentally left his 9-month-old son to die in the parking lot of NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The inventors patented a device with weight sensors and a keychain alarm. Based on aerospace technology, it was easy to use; it was relatively cheap, and it worked.

Janette Fennell had high hopes for this product: The dramatic narrative behind it, she felt, and the fact that it came from NASA, created a likelihood of widespread publicity and public acceptance.

That was five years ago. The device still isn't on the shelves. The inventors could not find a commercial partner willing to manufacture it. One big problem was liability. If you made it, you could face enormous lawsuits if it malfunctioned and a child died. But another big problem was psychological: Marketing studies suggested it wouldn't sell well.

The problem is this simple: People think this could never happen to them.
The author of the article appears to be defending the parents--"it could happen to anyone." Busy people who forget, because we are not gifted with powerful memories, but fragile ones...

Still, can we find anything in common among the parents? Have such accidental, yet seemingly preventable deaths, happened in families where the division of labor is clear, when one parent is taking care of the child while the other one works? In some families, both parents have to work. But in others, this is a chosen lifestyle. More victims of wage slavery and of radical egalitarianism?

And do we allow ourselves to be distracted too easily, by failing to prioritize properly? If our children's well-being were really paramount, would we not make sure to have done our duty to ensure it, rather than making assumptions? There is a line between proper parenting and becoming compulsive or controlling, but do moderns suffer from an inability to prioritize, which leads to becoming easily distracted and loss of focus? Is this a problem with modern practical reason?

Some may not be able to balance their lives in such a way that they can take their time and act calmly--but is this not another indictment of our political economy?

Or if it is so easy for human beings to lose track of things, maybe we should abandon the sort of lifestyle that contributes to this, because it puts others at risk.

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