(FOX 16) Every year about 36 families and communities are torn apart by a child’s tragic death after being left in a hot car. Here in Arkansas, the aftermath of that type of accident played out over a year when Judge Wade Naramore forgot his 18-month old son behind in July 2015.
He was eventually charged with negligent homicide, but was acquitted by a Hot Springs jury.
With this happening year after year, some wonder what it will take to help prevent these children from being fatally forgotten. One problem is that parents don’t think it can happen to them until it does. Some say technology is the answer, others point to criminal laws to serve as a deterrent. We explore all the avenues in this Fox16 Investigates report.
We do want to warn you that the video above contains emotional audio and visuals that some may choose not to watch.
SORROW IN ITS WAKE
The crackle of the radio does not diminish the message, “Possible infant left in a car.”
Every 10 days, on average, the call comes in across the United States.
“My son was left in the car and I think, I think he’s dead,” a frantic father tells 911 dispatchers.
A rapid response gets underway. but when it is too late, parents face the tragic truth. They are now living a reality full of sorrow left in its wake.
“I just don’t understand. I just don’t understand. I don’t understand how,” said Judge Wade Naramore shortly after that type of accident became his reality.
This is the aftermath when a child is fatally forgotten inside a hot car. It’s a tragedy that ripped through the Naramore family and rippled out into the Hot Springs community as it does about three dozen times a year nationwide.
ARKANSAS TOPS THE LIST OF HOT CAR DEATHS PER CAPITA
According to data from Jan Null, CCM, at the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science, San Jose State University, at least about 700 children have died this way since 1998. Null has tracked these deaths because there’s no surefire reporting mechanism. But according to Null’s data, Arkansas ranks number one for hot car deaths in the country per capita.
Kidsandcars.org has also been tracking these deaths for the past 20 years, according to Andreasen.
These types of death sky-rocketed after a safety measure moved kids from the front seat to the backseat to prevent airbag injuries. Cell phones have also played a role in the fatal distraction if you look at the details in many of these cases.
“With all the distractions that we have on a daily basis — out of sight has tragically meant out of mind,” said Amber Andreasen with Kids and Cars, an organization that aims to improve child safety inside cars.
DO LAWS REALLY DETER THESE TYPES OF ACCIDENTS?
Arkansas does not have a law making it a crime to leave your child in a vehicle, unattended or otherwise. Sixteen states have passed specific laws, two have passed laws that only deal with fatalities. Fourteen other states have legislation pending.
“The laws that are in place to prevent children from being left alone in vehicles are not designed to prevent these types of tragedies,” Andreasen said. “Really, these only deal with those situations where children are intentionally left, not the ones where they are forgotten.”
Advocates like Andreasen argue that criminalizing an accident makes these parents out to be monsters when they are simply mortal.
“They never knew that they would have to protect their child from their own memory,” she said.
As research emerges, findings suggest sometimes the brain short-circuits. It’s been dubbed “Forgotten Baby Syndrome.” That’s what an expert witness testified to in Judge Wade Naramore’s trial. The brain goes on autopilot and creates memories that never happened.
“I’ve played that through a million times since that day. Every time he gets to daycare,” Naramore told police in an interview in November 2015. “I thought I took him to daycare. But I don’t remember taking him to daycare.”
“They [these parents] think it’s a sick joke, someone is playing a joke on them. They know they dropped their child off,” Andreasen said.
Of the 10 states with the worst rankings for hot car deaths, according to Null’s data, six of those states have laws on the books. Nearly all of them are in southern or warm climates. But the data set is too small to show if fewer deaths have happened since laws passed in those states.
Instead of making forgetting a crime and putting parents on trial, advocates at Kidsandcars.org have backed a bill in Congress, known as the HOT Cars Act of 2016, to require automakers to install backseat alerts. Their rationale is that no parent thinks they could every forget, so they forego taking extra precautions to protect their kids.
“They live with the fact they’re responsible for their child’s death everyday until the day they die. Nothing is worse than that” Andreasen said.
TECHNOLOGY TO ALERT YOU BEFORE FATALLY FORGETTING
GMC is the only car company that has voluntarily taken action. Its 2017 Acadia includes a backseat alert for drivers that comes standard on every model of the Acadia.
“You load up the kid and went to work instead of going to daycare to drop off your child, and so therefore — now you get out the vehicle knowing – why is this going off?” said salesman Brian Stubbs at Crain Buick GMC in Conway.
Stubbs showed Fox16 Investigates how it works. If you open the back door, get in and start the car, the onboard computer makes a note. When you get out it reminds you to do a double check.
“Now you look back there and now you are having a good day instead of a bad day,” Stubbs said.
Not every system is perfect, especially on a first step. For instance, if a driver stopped the car at a gas station, turned it off and didn’t open the back door again before taking off again, the alert wouldn’t sound when it reached its final destination. But Andreasen said it was a good first step, and better than anything else currently available to parents.
OTHER IDEAS TO KEEP KIDS SAFE
Others have argued the cost to equip every new vehicle, an estimated cost of $1.76 billion a year for even a $100 upgrade, may be a hefty burden to put on the industry without proof it would significantly decrease the deaths.
A Texas law requires hospitals to include heatstroke information for parents of newborns at discharge much like some Arkansas hospitals already hand out regarding shaken baby syndrome.
A mom in Austin whose husband forgot to drop their daughter at daycare developed a callback plan, known as Ray Ray’s Pledge. Childcare facilities and parents mutually promise to call if a child is unexpectedly absent. Which they hope will alert parents in time to save a child’s life.
The goal of all these tactics is to keep kids from dying.
Fox16 Investigates did reach out to the Naramore family. While they declined an interview regarding the subject, Ashley Naramore did provide the following statement:
Regarding the HOT CARS act of 2016, I am thrilled by the news of this proposed legislation that would require auto manufacturers to implement a warning system to alert driver if a rear-facing child is left in a vehicle after it is turned off. Cost effective technology has existed for ten years. While we feel education is extremely important, that alone is not enough. Despite the educational push over the past ten years, the number of vehicular heatstroke deaths each year is not decreasing. It is impossible to educate everyone, and most people think this tragedy could never happen to them. I certainly did not think it could happen to my family – until it did. Technology accounts for faults in the human brain and our memory system. Studies have shown this can happen to anybody, even the most attentive parents. To see lawmakers acknowledge this is encouraging.
When Thomas passed away, Wade and I made a promise to each other and to our son that we would crusade for him; that his short life would be more than a statistic; and that through his love and legacy, lives would be saved and families spared a lifetime of pain. Preventing hot car deaths through technology, education, awareness and legislation is our mission and that is exactly what we plan on doing. We have been in communication with KidsandCars.org, Arkansas Childrens’ Hospital, daycares, lawmakers and other parent advocates around the country to further this mission and figure out the most effective way to go about building on the foundation that others have laid. If even one child is saved through our advocacy, then we have have accomplished our mission.