02 June 2023

Check The Back Seat

Welcome back. A recently published study by University of Notre Dame researchers reminded me that I never completed a blog post I began in 2019 on work by David Diamond at the University of South Florida. The background for both is that, since 1998, approximately 496 children have died of pediatric vehicular heatstroke in the U.S. because their caregiver forgot they were in the car.

Media reports of the 938 pediatric vehicular heatstroke deaths 1998 through 2022 show: 52.6% forgotten by caregiver (496 children), 25.3% gained access on their own (237), 20.3% knowingly left by caregiver (190), 1.8% unknown (17) (from https://www.noheatstroke.org/).

I’ll begin with Prof. Diamond’s research, which is more basic and direct. The Notre Dame researchers conducted an experiment to simulate how forgetting could occur.

Prof. Diamond’s Research
Diamond has studied the phenomenon from a neuropsychological perspective for over two decades. He has served on federal committees to assess why children are forgotten in cars and how the auto industry can respond. He has also served as an expert witness in cases in which parents have been charged with crimes, including murder, offering testimony that enabled judges and juries to understand how attentive and loving parents are capable of forgetting their child in the car.

He has concluded that all of these tragic occurrences involve the failure of the brain’s prospective memory system, which is defined by three features: (1) the person has an intention to perform an action later when circumstances permit; (2) there is a delay between forming and executing the intention, a delay typically filled with activities not directly related to the intended action; and (3) there is typically an absence of an explicit prompt that it is time to retrieve the intention from memory.

Diamond first published his hypothesis in 2016 in an on-line article in The Conversation. He then described the phenomenon at length in 2019 in the peer-reviewed journal Medicine, Science and the Law. In short, (1) the driver loses awareness of the child in the car; (2) the driver exhibits a failure of prospective memory, (3) intervening events during the drive, including stressors and strong distractions, may contribute to causing the prospective memory failure.

Notre Dame Study
To better understand this lapse in prospective memory, the Notre Dame researchers designed an experiment to measure if and how college students could forget their cellphones, their “babies” so to speak.

When students arrived to participate in a planned experiment, the researchers got their approval to add the memory experiment without providing details. They took the cellphones of 192 students and gave them activity trackers to attach to the back of their waistbands.

When they released the students at the end of the planned experiment, the researchers checked (1) how often students forgot to retrieve their phone and return the trackers and (2) whether it mattered if the students were given explicit reminders to take their phone when testing was complete.

Depiction of Notre Dame study procedure (from psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2023-70258-001.html).

Study Results
About 7% of students forgot their cellphones without the reminder, compared to almost 5% of those who were reminded. Nearly 18% of both categories forgot to return the tracker.

Proportions of different cues that caused students to remember cellphone and tracker with or without explicit reminder (from psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2023-70258-001.html).
Debriefing the students confirmed that prospective memory failure can happen to anyone. Forgetting occurs when environmental cues fail to trigger one’s memory of the intention at the right moment.

Wrap Up

Several points of interest:

Forgetting babies in cars was uncommon before laws were passed in the 1990s requiring car seats be placed rear-facing in the back seat.

The chance that a child could be forgotten increases, of course, if the driver is not the caregiver who usually has that responsibility.

Legal opinion is such that if the caregiver who forgot the child did not possess mens rea -- knowledge or intent of wrongdoing at the time of their inaction -- a crime has not occurred; the caregiver should not be prosecuted.

Although many automakers now offer rear-seat alert systems, Biden’s infrastructure bill signed into law a provision requiring all automakers to install some manner of rear-seat alert systems in all new vehicles. It takes effect with 2025 model year vehicles.

Thank you for allowing me to complete that 2019 blog post. And thanks for stopping by.

Diamond’s article (updated) in The Conversation: theconversation.com/children-dying-in-hot-cars-a-tragedy-that-can-be-prevented-60909
Diamond’s study in Medicine, Science and the Law: journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0025802419831529
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-03/uosf-wtb030419.php
Notre Dame study in Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition: psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2023-70258-001.html
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/989784
Legal opinion on mens rea in Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law: lawcat.berkeley.edu/record/1163936

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