Together for Short Lives
Call the Helpline 0808 8088 100

When a child dies of heatstroke after a parent or caretaker unknowingly leaves the child in a car: How does it happen and is it a crime?

Journal title
Medicine, science, and the law
Publication year
Diamond, D. M.

It is commonly reported that in the course of a drive, a parent or caretaker loses awareness of the presence of a child in the back seat of the car. Upon arriving at the destination, the driver exits the car and unknowingly leaves the child in the car. This incomprehensible lapse of memory exposes forgotten children to hazards, including death from heatstroke. More than 400 children in the past 20 years have suffered from heatstroke after being unknowingly forgotten in cars. How can loving and attentive parents, with no evidence of substance abuse or an organic brain disorder, have a catastrophic lapse of memory that places a child’s welfare in jeopardy? This article addresses this question at multiple levels of analysis. First, it is concluded that the loss of awareness of a child in a car is a failure of a type of memory referred to as prospective memory (PM), that is, failure to remember to execute a plan in the future. Second, factors that increase the likelihood that PM will fail are identified. Third, research on the neurobiology of PM and PM-related memory failures are reviewed, including a discussion of how competition between brain structures contributes to a failure of PM. Finally, the issue of whether a failure of PM that results in harm to a child qualifies as a criminal offence is discussed. Overall, this neuropsychological perspective on how catastrophic memory errors occur should be of value to the scientific community, the public and law-enforcement agencies.

Research abstracts