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The psychology behind leaving a child in a hot car – and how to prevent it

Monday, August 10th 2020, 11:29 am - It seems incomprehensible -- but experts say anyone could forget a child in a car. Read on to learn why, and how you can prevent it from happening.

A study published in Pediatrics and Child Health last summer found that since 2013 in Canada, there have been six known cases of child deaths in parked hot cars.

When these types of headlines hit the news, caregivers often say they were simply running into a store or had a change of routine that caused them to forget.

But how could anyone be irresponsible enough to leave their child unattended in a hot car?

Dr. David Diamond, a Professor of Psychology, Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology at the University of South Florida has been studying brain and memory since 1980. He tells The Weather Network these horrific acts of negligence have to do with the brain going into 'autopilot'.

"Prospective is having the plan to use your memory to accomplish a plan in the future for something that can’t be done now, as in, 'after lunch I need to call my friend, or on the way home from work I’ll stop at the store, or on the way to work I’ll drop my child off at daycare,'" he says in an email.

"Habit memory is something we do automatically, without thought, such as hitting a tennis ball properly, riding a bike, turning on the light switch when we enter a room, or driving to work without thinking about every turn."

Habit memory typically dominates over prospective memory.

"Parents lose awareness of a child in the car when habit memory takes over. Stress and a poor night's sleep promotes dominance of habit over prospective memory," he says.

While it's hard to imagine forgetting your child in a car, Dr. Diamond says it could happen to anyone and recommends all drivers use a memory cue when driving with a child to avoid an accident.

PREVENTING HOT CAR DEATHS

There are apps, alarms, and other technologies available to remind drivers there is a child in the back seat.

In 2014, Melanie Payne suggested the shoe trick -- a simple but effective way to ensure you check the back of your car before exiting for the day.

Once you've put a baby into the back seat, take off your left shoe and place it beside them. When you arrive at your destination, you'll exit your car with only one shoe -- triggering the memory you have a passenger.

NEVER SAFE TO LEAVE A CHILD OR A PET UNATTENDED IN A HOT CAR

When it's 26 degrees Celsius outside, it can climb to 32 degrees inside a car parked in the shade -- and to 71 degrees if the car is parked in the sun -- in minutes.

Officials say there is no acceptable amount of time to leave a child unattended in a hot car, even with the windows down.

Children and pets are at a higher risk of heat-related illness because they are not able to regulate and cool their body temperature as efficiently as an adult.

WATCH BELOW: HERE'S HOW FAST YOUR CAR CAN HEAT UP IN THE SUMMER

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