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How does a parent forget a child in a car? A neuroscientist explains

Since 1990, 900 kids have died in hot cars.

Nine-hundred children have died in hot cars since 1990.  

This year, already 23 kids have died in hot cars. In some cases, police say parents accidentally left their kid in the car. They call it a tragic accident or mistake.  

How does a parent forget a child is in the car?

Dr. David Diamond is a neuroscientist and professor at the University of South Florida. He’s studied memory for 40 years and spent the last 15 researching how parents and caretakers lose awareness that a kid is in the car. 

“It is incomprehensible to think about how a parent could just forget about a child in the car and the knee-jerk reaction from people is because you just don’t do it,” Diamond said.

10Investigates’ Courtney Robinson sat down with Diamond to understand scientifically what happens in the brain. Diamond says if you understand the power of the brain memory system then you will understand that this can happen to anyone and you’ll take steps to make sure you are not among parents grieving the death of a child left in a hot car.

RELATED: Father who left twins in car said he 'blanked out'

Diamond says it’s important to understand there are memory systems in the brain that are competing, and one is very powerful. He says it’s like “autopilot.”

“We’ve got this brain system that puts us into an auto pilot mode and it’s really convenient. It means that there are so many things that we don’t have to think about as far as where we’re going, how to drive and it takes over. It allows us to go from point A to point B with almost no thought,” Diamond said.

He says that combined with other factors, it can make you lose awareness.

“People set up this distinction that you just can’t forget a child, this auto pilot system as an excuse," Diamond said. "So again, we need to get out of that kind of mode and realize the power of our auto pilot system. It has nothing to do with your love for the child; It is the power of the system to make you lose awareness of the child in the backseat of the car."

He says the perfect unfortunate storm happens when parents are sleep deprived, distracted, stressed or there’s a change in routine.

According to Diamond, once a parent or caretaker has lost awareness, if nothing jogs their memory that the child is in the car then a “false memory” is created.

“The assumption is if I’m at work I must have dropped my child off at daycare and that becomes a memory and that’s why people can spend an entire day looking at a picture of their child, talking about their child and in fact telling people, ‘I need to leave work on time to be able to pick my child up at day care,’” Diamond said.

He says this can happen to anyone and points to a survey of parents of young children where 25 percent admitted that at some point they forgot their child was in the car.

“We have to accept that this does happen as a result of human flaws. This is a part of being human. It’s not part of being a negligent parent," Diamond said. "So, once we accept that possibility we then have to take measures we do something to be sure that our child will not be forgotten in our car."

Those measures can be as simple as putting something of yours in the backseat with your kid or something that is theirs, like a diaper bag or toy, in the front seat to remind you to check. 

Diamond advocates for a federal law to be passed requiring child detection systems in cars. He also wants more of what he says are systems that can detect a child breathing, which he says are inexpensive for automakers to install. He says it comes out to about $20 a car. Diamond says this needs to be in every car, new and old.

 The Hot Cars Act of 2019 has been proposed in both the U.S. House and Senate. It would require all new cars to have child safety alert systems. KidsAndCars.org tracks deaths across the country and is urging you to act and contact your member of Congress to pass this legislation.

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