This 'Hot Car' Hysteria Needs to Stop


In the tri-state area the headlines screamed this week about a child rescued from a hot car in New Jersey as her mother shopped for fifteen minutes in Costco. Predictably, the comments on the stories called for her head. Admittedly, it was a jerk move. It is quite hot outside. But rescued? The kid was diagnosed as sweaty by paramedics.

Every summer hysteria over hot cars reaches a fever pitch. The stories are sensational, emotional, gripping. The otherwise devoted parents of children young enough to be strapped into car seats forget about them, whereupon these children die horrifying deaths, slowly over the course of many hours. It’s not surprising the stories take hold of our collective parental psyches.

On the issue of hot cars (and many others) though, we have utterly lost our minds. We have lost the ability to differentiate between eight minutes and eight hours. Sixty degrees and ninety. Anytime a child is seen in the back of a car alone, bystanders call the police first and ask questions later.

Several months ago on a cool day I left my sleeping baby and toddler in the car for five minutes to run into Rite Aid to get a prescription for my son. I came back out to a screaming, hysterical woman and a man on the phone with 9-1-1. She yelled, “Look how scared they are!” Wouldn’t you be if a woman was screaming and gesticulating wildly at you through a window? Thankfully though, the car was locked and this insane woman couldn’t get her hands on my kids. She informed me in no uncertain terms she would be reporting me.

In a sane world I would have had nothing to fear. I would have told police that the Rite Aid doesn’t have a ramp for a stroller, so I would have had to carry both my squirmy toddler and my baby in his car seat across a busy parking lot and down the stairs, only to go back up them a few minutes later. I made a judgment call: it was safer and easier to leave them strapped in, windows cracked in the sixty degree weather, than to bring them with me. My daughter had already squirmed out of my arms in a parking lot and made a run for it that day, and this lot was far busier than the one she ran through.


Sadly, the world that we live in is no longer sane. In a New York Post op-ed last summer Andrea Peyster wrote about the hot car hysteria, putting some much needed facts into perspective:, whose members oppose children being left in cars, estimates that 45 kids have died this year after being backed over by vehicles in places including driveways and parking lots, and another 23 were killed after cars rolled over them while going forward. Also, 265 child pedestrians were struck and killed by cars in 2011, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Alongside these news stories about kids getting “rescued” we’ve seen that car seat manufacturers recently designed seats to remind parents of kids left in a seat after the ignition has been turned off. As with all kid-purchases, it will soon become mandatory, lest we be accused of neglect for not taking every single possible precaution to ward off danger, however improbable.

But is it worth it? As it is, car seat manuals are overwhelming at dozens of pages long already. There are even (necessary) experts called Car Seat Technicians (CSTs) to help parents install their seat, which are prohibitively complicated. Basic information gets lost in the process. In a recent study presented to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 93 percent of parents leave the hospital with their newborn buckled into their car seat with at least one critical error (looking at pictures of when we left the hospital with my firstborn, I can tell you I was one of those parents). Considering the fact that traffic fatalities are the number one cause of death for young children in this country (not being left in hot cars) this is an inexcusable statistic.

There’s some very simple, but very lifesaving information lost in the process. In Sweden cars and car seats are built to rear face until the child is four years of age. As a result, child fatalities have been reduced to almost zero, outside of catastrophic crashes where everyone else in the car is killed. Lost in the dozens of pages of information on how to adequately strap and tether a seat, and now even more pages if technology about ignitions is made standard, parents are left unfamiliar with how the orientation of their child’s car seat could mean the difference between life and death. Car seats are complicated enough as it is, and it’s costing lives.

While “hot car” deaths are tragic, and while they are preventable, there are far more low-tech and simple solutions that would keep thousands, not dozens of kids from unnecessary and tragic deaths. If only car and car seat manufacturers were listening to the science instead of the hysteria.