- Kidsafe warns children left in cars, even for short periods, are at risk of heatstroke and dehydration
- Experts say parents need to get into the habit of checking the back seat of their car
- New car technology and apps can help remind parents to check for children in their car
Each time there's a story in the news of a child left in a car, you can almost hear people shouting in response: "How does this happen?"
Despite the shock and outrage, tragically it does keep happening in Australia and overseas.
In Melbourne last week, a woman was charged after a toddler was rescued from a car in a critical condition.
RACV said it attends an average of three accidental lock-in incidents each day.
Monash University's director of education for psychology Matthew Mundy gave evidence at a coronial inquest in 2017 into the death of a child who had been accidentally left in a car.
He said it is important to differentiate between those who deliberately leave children in cars and people who have forgotten that children are in the car's back seat.
"The parents that purposely leave a child in the car are rightfully pursued by the authorities for negligence, whereas when a parent forgets that a child is in a car, there are a number of reasons that can contribute to that, that I think we are all in one way or another susceptible to," he said.
How do parents or carers forget about a child in a car?
Dr Mundy said in terms of brain function, forgetting a child in the back seat of a car is quite similar to forgetting an everyday item.
"We like to think of our memories as pretty good, particularly when it comes to super-important things like our children," he said.
But he said things are not that simple when scientists look at the biology and the neuroscience of memory lapses.
"What happens in your brain when you make a small forgetful error is actually the same or can be the same biological process when you forget your child in the car or when you forget to pick up your keys in the morning," he said.
The academic said a range of factors can lead to these memory failures.
"If we have a situation where perhaps we are sleep-deprived, we're distracted or we're stressed, all of these things can reduce the function of our short-term memory," he said.
He said young babies that are in capsules that face towards the back of the car can also make it harder for parents to be alert to their presence.
"If a child is in a rear-facing seat — as they should be because that is far safer for a small child — and they happen to fall asleep, then those natural cues are not present because you can't really see a child in a rear-facing seat," he said.
Can technology help?
In 2017, then-Victorian coroner Sara Hinchey called for a review of Australian design standards to assess whether memory cue features should be built into new cars.
In the United States, some car manufacturers already have rear door alert systems that set off an alarm if a back seat door is opened before a car starts but is not opened when the driver arrives at their destination.
Kidsafe Victoria's general manager Jason Chambers said cars with this feature are starting to become available in Australia.
"They are something that are built into the cars when people purchase them so it is not something that parents and carers have to purchase or have to remember to set or do," he said.
Dr Mundy said he believes rear door alarms are critical for child safety.
"If we look at Italy they have actually made it mandatory now for cars to have those sorts of alarms in them," he said.
He wants these alarms also made mandatory in Australia.
The academic said there is also other technology that can help including back seat pressure sensors that can be installed and recorded voice messages that can be played at the end of each journey that reminds drivers to check the back seat.
Is there an app for this?
There are also a number of apps that have been developed to help parents or carers remember to check the back seat of their car.
US Jewish not-for-profit organisation Kars4Kids developed an app in 2014 in response to seeing too many tragic stories of children dying in back seats of cars after being forgotten.
Its director of communications, Wendy Kirwan, said the app is designed to help parents.
"The app works by automatically syncing with the car's Bluetooth technology and setting off an alert when that connection is severed when the driver leaves the car," she said.
That alert prompts the driver to check the back seat of the car before leaving their vehicle.
Another app designed to tackle the same problem is The Backseat App, which also prompts drivers to check the rear seat.
If the driver can't be reached, it will then send an alert to designated contacts that the driver has chosen.
Experts warn though that technology is just part of the answer to this issue.
Ms Kirwin said Kars4Kids also suggested parents use physical reminders.
"We do strongly encourage parents to take other precautions as well, such as leaving a shoe or phone in the back seat with the child," she said.
"Anything that you would definitely notice if you left the car without."
That's something Mr Chambers agreed with, saying parents need to develop the habit of checking the back seat before leaving a car.