Possible psychological explanation for hot car deaths

Every year, about three dozen children in the United States, including Pennsylvania, die because their parents left them behind in a hot car. The children in these cases are often less than two years old, too young to understand what is going on or to alert parents to their presence in the vehicle. 

According to the New York Times, approximately 43% of parents whose children die in hot cars face criminal charges. Once charged, a parent’s chances of conviction are approximately three to one. Depending on the jurisdiction and the facts of the case, the charges can range from misdemeanor charges like child endangerment to felony charges of involuntary manslaughter. 

However, it is not always possible for prosecutors to obtain sufficient evidence to demonstrate that a parent intended harm to a child by leaving him or her in the car. While some may question what kind of parent forgets about his or her children, psychology seems to back up the theory that sometimes that is precisely what happens. 

According to Verywell Mind, automaticity is a psychological phenomenon that allows people to perform certain habitual behaviors without consciously thinking about them. Once the behavior is complete, the individual may have little, if any, recollection of what happened during that timeframe. Colloquial terms for automaticity include “going on autopilot” or “zoning out.” Examples of behaviors that may involve automaticity include walking, riding a bike, reading/writing and driving to work.

Automaticity has many benefits in people’s daily lives. A person would hardly get anything done if he or she had to consciously think how to walk in a straight line, sign a document or drive a car. Nevertheless, automaticity can also mean an increased risk of danger to oneself or others. When one is performing tasks automatically, one may not be aware of unforeseen hazards. 

If, for example, transporting a child to daycare on the way to work is not normally part of a parent’s routine, automaticity may take over during the morning commute. If the child falls asleep in the car, the parent may forget his or her presence, sometimes not remembering until it is too late.