An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just... forgets a child is in the car. It happens that way somewhere in the United States 15 to 25 times a year, parceled out through the spring, summer and early fall. The season is almost upon us.The article focuses on the issue of manslaughter or excusable mistake and the vagaries of the justice system. These are worthy of analysis by an article like this. But I find something different to focus my attention on.
Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?
The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.
To me this is a classic problem of a "technological fix" that ignore the complexity of situations and personalities and distractions. The fix puts a kid in a back seat where somebody who is distracted can forget them and thereby cause their death. The joke is that this move was done bureaucratically to "save lives" but instead directly leads to a predictable number of deaths.
When you do a proper safety analysis you look at all failure modes to understand how your design might fail. These "safety experts" who mandated car seats in the back obviously never investigated failure modes. They saw a quick fix for a safety problem and mandated the "obvious" answer. But that is exactly how you get "unintended consequences" from your technology, from your designs, from your regulations. Sad.
Go to the end of the article, read the last section where the author interviews Janette Fennell who runs a nonprofit organization called Kids and Cars. You get a taste of the bad safety design and "unintentional consequences" of our technology.
The answer to the problem, Fennell believes, lies in improved car safety features and in increased public awareness that this can happen, that the results of a momentary lapse of memory can be horrifying.What I don't understand is how the legal system can hold parents liable for deaths when manufacturers are not held liable for their design decisions or lack of action:
The 2008 Cameron Gulbransen Kids' Transportation Safety Act -- which requires safety improvements in power windows and in rear visibility, and protections against a child accidentally setting a car in motion -- originally had a rear seat-sensor requirement, too. It never made the final bill; sponsors withdrew it, fearing they couldn't get it past a powerful auto manufacturers' lobby.What I don't understand is a legal system that can hold a parent responsible for a failure to act, but doesn't fix a failing in the legal system that creates deaths because manufacturers are terrified of selling a product that might fail and leaves them open to liability lawsuits. It is not OK for a parent to fail to act, but it is OK for the legal system (or a manufacturer) to fail to act. This is a strange notion of "justice" that makes no sense to me.
There are a few aftermarket products that alert a parent if a child remains in a car that has been turned off. These products are not huge sellers. They have likely run up against the same marketing problem that confronted three NASA engineers a few years ago.
In 2000, Chris Edwards, Terry Mack and Edward Modlin began to work on just such a product after one of their colleagues, Kevin Shelton, accidentally left his 9-month-old son to die in the parking lot of NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The inventors patented a device with weight sensors and a keychain alarm. Based on aerospace technology, it was easy to use; it was relatively cheap, and it worked.
Janette Fennell had high hopes for this product: The dramatic narrative behind it, she felt, and the fact that it came from NASA, created a likelihood of widespread publicity and public acceptance.
That was five years ago. The device still isn't on the shelves. The inventors could not find a commercial partner willing to manufacture it. One big problem was liability. If you made it, you could face enormous lawsuits if it malfunctioned and a child died. But another big problem was psychological: Marketing studies suggested it wouldn't sell well.