Category Archives: Car Safety

Kids in Hot Cars: Neglect or Not?

Photo Credit: Safe Kids USA

Photo Credit: Safe Kids USA

It’s happening again. Last week – it happened two times in the DC area within days. Last month, 7 kids died in 4 different states within two weeks. It’s a totally preventable, horrific and unnecessary death when parents or caregivers forget a child is in the backseat of a car and the child dies after being left in the heat in a car. It happens every single year, unfortunately.

Several years ago, Gene Weingarten wrote a chilling and incredibly thorough piece on this issue of Kids and Cars in the Washington Post magazine. If you didn’t read it then, I’d encourage you to read it now.

It is a long read and it is a really difficult read. I distinctly remember it took me almost a week because I had to break it up into sections. What he does very well is examine all sides of the issue – in particular the perspective that is so difficult for many of us to accept – HOW CAN THIS BE? Look, if you read my below piece that I wrote back in July 2011, you’ll realize very quickly that I am incredibly firm in my belief that it is neglect on the part of whomever has left this child in the car. Despite those feelings, it’s still important to get a perspective on how the brain functions, how it actually is possible to forget a child. Weingarten’s piece will give you that perspective. The psychologist he interviews pointedly notes that if you’re capable of forgetting your cell phone, you’re capable of forgetting your child.

After re-reading that portion of the interview, I couldn’t help but wonder, if that same sound bite would prove true today. Back in 2009, we weren’t as addicted to our phones as we are now — they weren’t quite so smart — so is it still true?

The other perspective you’ll get from reading the piece is the horrific way a child dies when they are left inside a hot vehicle. One child pulled all her hair out in that process.

That is what I think about when I’m criticized for being judgmental of the parents who forget their kids in the back of the car. How about the kid?

Yet a few months ago, my husband came home one day and said to me “Now I think I can see how someone could forget their kid in the backseat of the car.”

Our youngest had taken to falling asleep in the car, something neither of our kids had really ever done before and we’d moved her up to a booster seat from her convertible car seat. In our Jeep, the way the seats are and the height of the new bigger kid car seat, suddenly it meant that unless you turned the rear view mirror down to deliberately see her – you could no longer see her when looking in that mirror.  In that moment – I knew he was right – for the first time – I could actually realize with my own two eyes how something this horrific could happen.

Even so, I still firmly believe it’s neglect and it’s a crime.

Want to know what else I think? I think that every time a child dies from being left in a hot car, every single one of us needs to slow down and take stock of our own lives. Parsing out the instances where it was a parent deliberately leaving the child, each case shares one common trait – a change in routine, a busy hectic schedule, a tired parent, pulled in too many directions:  a recipe for disaster.

No matter your feelings, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of blame, anger and neglect – we all need to slow down and think about it for a few minutes.

If you want to read more – I’m including the piece I posted back in July 2011 when this was a hot topic in the DC area because of the Virginia mother who left her child in the car. If you read all the way to the end, you’ll appreciate the reminder that it was written a few years ago because I toss in a Casey Anthony reference. Forget about her?


Every summer stories break that a parent changes his or her routine, forgets to take the child to daycare, instead goes to work and leaves their own child unattended in a hot scorching car for 7 or 8 hours, only to ultimately find the child dead at the end of the work day. It’s a horrible story. It’s a story that no one is comfortable with. But what shocks me every time is how forgiving the public is of these parents who fail to remember their own kid in the back seat of a car all day long.

In Sunday’s Washington Post there was an oped written by Molly Roberts on the recent case of the veterinarian from Virginia who left her child unattended for 7 hours last month and the child died. Sunday’s piece, “A Baby is dead. Was it a crime?”, initially infuriated me. Roberts clearly is very uncomfortable with accusing a seemingly loving mother, a smart educated mother, a mother who is maybe – on paper – like Roberts: smart, focused, driven, successful. Roberts, in her piece,  is unwilling to admit that this mother is guilty of neglect even though she concedes it is neglectful to forget a child in a car because we can’t prove that this woman INTENDED to neglect her child.

Ok – so along the path of keeping our children safe – we’re supposed to look kindly on neglect cases where the parent didn’t actually MEAN to inflict any harm on the child. And in this case, the ultimate worst kind of harm, the death of a child. What does the child say about this? How do we protect the innocent if we allow for neglect when it wasn’t intended?

I think what this story, and the shockingly endless stories like this, is really about is this: we can RELATE to this form of neglect. We are all running around, harried, stretched too thin, with schedules too busy and jam-packed. Our minds are racing, our brains overcrowded with to-do lists and deadlines. We can RELATE to how easy it might be to change-up our schedule and forget something, even something as beloved as our child.

So we don’t feel comfortable prosecuting these grieving parents.  We can’t relate to drug-addicted moms who didn’t mean to leave their pipes lying around for the  kid to pick up and use. We can’t relate to parents who drive drunk with their kids in the back of the car. We can’t relate to parents who leave loaded guns in their homes and the child finds it and uses it. But we CAN relate to busy, over-worked and stressed out parents. So we don’t want to hold  them accountable in the court system because it hits close to home.

I’ll be honest: I don’t relate to it and I find it neglectful. I think they should be prosecuted, no matter the profound level of pain and trauma they feel for their horrible mistake. Am I a perfect parent who never makes mistakes? Of course not. But who goes 7 or 8 hours without thinking of their child? How is this possible? I don’t care how busy your day is and what life-saving miracles you might be performing at work – forgetting a child and leaving them to suffer a horrible experience in the back of a hot car is neglect.

Whether we are comfortable saying it, whether we can relate to how it could happen or not – if a child ends up dead – someone should be accountable for it.  Unless, apparently, you live in the state of Florida and your name is Casey Anthony.


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Driving VW along the California Coast

In March, I was invited to join Volkswagen for a media trip to test out their line of vehicles. They invited an assortment of traditional media and bloggers to join them in Half Moon Bay, California, and we were given a day to drive a variety of their cars along the beautiful mountains surrounding Palo Alto. The trip ended with a tour of their R&D facilities.

As someone who actually worked for the auto industry for many years, I was eager to be a part of this trip.  I learned more about autos and all the research that goes into building these computers on wheels than I ever imagined possible during my time working for the industry and I still find it endlessly fascinating to learn more, particularly about the research involved in building the next generation of vehicles. Also, despite having worked for the industry for so many years, I’d never actually had the chance to participate in a company press junket, so I couldn’t wait.

We were like bees on honey with that sporty red Golf. My partners in crime: Leticia & Jyl

I was part of the first of two waves of media and in my wave, there were only a small handful of women. This didn’t surprise me and I hope the tide is changing on that front. Some of the communications folks at VW noted that they did adopt a different strategy for the spring’s ride and drive and strategically decided to invite some parenting bloggers – realizing that women do yield an enormous influence over all purchasing decisions at home – including cars. I was lucky enough to partner up with two other fabulous bloggers, Leticia who writes Tech Savvy Mama and Jyl who founded Mom It Forward. We were trouble from the start. After defecting from my original group, I hopped into the back seat of our first ride with Thelma Leticia and Louise Jyl. Our marching orders were to enjoy the car, and find our way to the top of the mountain to trade in the CC for the next vehicle of our choosing.

Let me tell you, we took our time. We quickly found the 80s station of our choosing on the satellite radio, I marveled over

The CC we drove up the mountain..when plenty of stops along the way

how much room there is in the back seat of this beautiful car, and we might have trespassed detoured into an artichoke field and stumbled upon an adorable country store on our way up the mountain. The current CC model now offers seating for five, including 3 kids in the back, which is real plus for larger families who still want a sedan instead of a minivan or SUV. As we weaved our way up the narrow mountainous roads, I soon realized that I was feeling incredibly car sick, at which point Jyl helpfully noted this would be the ideal way to test out the car’s durability if transporting children… would vomit wipe up in the back seat?

The men might have been pulled over to the side, peeking under the hood of the car, but not us. We were instead engrossed in the practical realities of driving kids around. Turns out I didn’t toss my crackers but one of us spilled some tea and it wiped up easily without staining or drama. Check one for durability for VW.

Next we took out a bright red Beetle. The VW team explained to us earlier in the morning during the formal presentation part of the day that they’ve taken customer feedback seriously and changed the shape and size of the Beetle….to appeal to men…but we still loved it. They’ve given the Beetle a “wider stance with a more balanced appeal” but the bottom line is – a Beetle is a Beetle – a completely fun car to drive that always catches the eyes of other drivers on the road. This is the ideal car for anyone who likes to park easily and feel sporty. I loved driving it. And there was no puking happening from the back seat partner in crime during this route. We had fun checking out the fancy and sporty dashboard, stylish interior detailing and naturally took full advantage of the heated seats – something I use even on warm summer days – much to the total confusion of my husband.

Fabulous family vehicle...the Touareg

The third and final car we took out is one of VW’s best cars for families…the Touareg. We loved driving it, one of the largest vehicles VW makes, complete with tons of cargo room in the back for strollers, groceries and beach and pool gear. The Touareg will also be offered as a super charged hybrid…which on some level feels like a contradiction – but who says you can’t love efficiency and speed? As a hybrid, it boasts 28mpg, which is pretty impressive for a bigger SUV. This particular vehicle is also equipped with all the safety technology that is particularly important to parents (well, really, who doesn’t care about safety?), specifically what VW calls an Intelligent Crash Response, meaning in the event of a collision, the doors automatically unlock, the fuel pump shuts off and the hazards immediately go on. As someone who was in a horrific accident on the beltway in February – I would have appreciated even some of these things.

As gas prices flirted with $4/gallon all spring, however, what really draws me to VW as the ideal manufacturer for my next purchase is the diesel option. Personally, I have my eye on the diesel Jetta wagon. Diesel is 20-40% more fuel-efficient than gasoline and unlike the diesel of the 1970s, diesel today is clean. In fact, clean diesel engines reduce carbon emissions by 20% over gasoline engines.  In the fall, VW is rolling out the Jetta hybrid and will offer the Beetle in diesel later this summer. The other car I was lucky enough to ride in but didn’t get a chance to drive was the sporty Golf, also available in diesel and the most powerful Golf engine offered yet, along with a four door option. Suddenly I found myself wanting that car too. Can you tell I like small and sporty? Fabulous choices all around. It’s no wonder this manufacturer saw an almost 30% increase in sales in the United States last year. Though it puzzles me that the diesel options in the US only account for 20% of their fleet sales – despite how popular diesel is overseas, especially in Europe. I wonder if this trend will continue to tick upwards in the US?

So what else did we do beyond drive super fun cars? Well, we ate incredibly delicious food, so clearly I suffered. But the part I was most looking forward to came at the conclusion of our day – which was a visit to their research labs out in Silicon Valley. VW concluded that so much innovation is happening in Silicon Valley – why not partner automotive research with technology research? One of the coolest things we were shown in the lab is a simulator to help learn more about distracted driving – including fatigued driving – and researching the characteristics of when eyelids are closing  to detect when a driver is drowsy. Another core competency at the VW research lab is work on renewable fuels – so hybrids and diesel are not the only solutions. In fact, VW is investing $783 million in renewable energy with their VW ThinkBlue efforts.

Again, I was an automotive policy wonk, so maybe my final fun fact for today won’t thrill you in the same way it did me – but I leave you with this to think about – if 1/3 of Americans switched from gasoline to clean diesel in their daily drives, the U.S. could send back 1.5 million barrels of foreign oil per day, according to the EPA.

Bottom line – it was a great trip and the amount of research going into safety technology, alternative fuels and emissions is truly remarkable and impressive. Now…to convince Mr. Wired Momma that I should be first in line for the Jetta Hybrid this fall…..until then, thank you to VW for a great trip and for expanding your reach into parenting bloggers.

Disclosure: VW purchased my airline ticket and provided me with my lodging and food for the duration of my trip to Half Moon Bay. I was not compensated financially for this post or my time out there. My opinions here are all my own.

Distracted Driving: Hypocrisy Anyone?

Think about the first ice or snow storm we will get here this winter. What is the inevitable conversation that happens, beyond mocking all the school systems for closing for the day before a drop of snow even falls from the sky? You got it, we mock this town for all the “people who can’t drive in the snow.” We love to laugh about those buffoons. We talk about  how we grew up in Minneapolis or Buffalo and a real storm isn’t until you’ve gotten over a foot and we are such pansies around here. We all do this. But see, if we all mock these people, then some of us must also BE these people that we are mocking, otherwise we wouldn’t have such traffic disasters each and every time it snows. (Need I remind you of the day last winter where it took many people, my husband included, something like 6 hours to get home?).  So look, I will be the first to admit that much as I love to mock, I am totally one of those PEOPLE WE MOCK. I’ve officially never really driven in bad snowy weather, I never owned a car in my life until I was 30 years old and we moved away from our apartment on Connecticut Avenue and well, it only snows a few times a year here (usually), so I just rely on 4WD while happily tossing my head back in uproarious laughter with everyone as we mercilessly mock “those people who can’t drive in the snow.”

Hypocritical much?

I think the same can be said for texting and driving. Ashley Halsey III of The Washington Post ran a story on Wednesday about how 35% of drivers said they’ve read or sent a text while driving in the past month and 67% said they talked on the phone while driving in the past month.  Interestingly, a deeper review of the survey data reveals that the majority of people believe OTHERS are more dangerous when they text and drive or chat and drive, than they are and so they overwhelmingly support laws against texting and driving. My state of Maryland just this weekend enacted the law banning texting and driving – we can now get ticketed as a primary offense for this behavior.

Back to the hypocrisy:  First of all, I don’t believe that only 35% of drivers have read or sent a text while driving (does this include stopped at a red light) because look around the Beltway or any major road in DC and I see it happening every time I drive. But more to the point, we are a culture of totally agreeing with the socially responsible answer when polled but we are quick to say everyone else should do it. Just like we mock “Washingtonians” for being terrible drivers in one inch of snow…are we a nation of hypocrites? It can’t just be symptomatic of people living in DC.

Here’s why we as parents should care DEEPLY about this issue of texting and driving – because our teens are doing it and our teens are dying. According to Allstate and The Hill, from an event they hosted last week on this important issue, more than 4,000 teens are dying on our roads and highways every year. Accidents on the road are the number one cause of teenage deaths. And 4,000 teens losing their lives equates to 155 lost lives a week. Why aren’t we calling this a crisis? Why aren’t our networks spending more time on such important issues like this, instead of the guilt or innocence of Casey Anthony or Amanda Knox?

This about sums it friend shot this outside a Church on 16th St

Part of the impetus for The Hill and Allstate’s event last week was to support new legislation in the Senate that will require graduated licensing laws (GDL) for teens. Provisions of the Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection (STANDUP) Act were recently added to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Reauthorization bill in the Senate. The STANDUP Act requires minimum standards of graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws. According to Allstate, state and national evaluations of GDL programs have found crash reductions for 16- and 17-year-old drivers in the 20 percent to 40 percent range. I think if you were to ask a parent who is mourning the loss of their child from a car crash, they would support a law that would reduce crashes by even one percent.

So, why does this matter if you don’t have a child old enough to drive? I think it matters to people whose children are too young to drive because the little ones are watching and learning and repeating what we do. I regularly am surprised by what my girls, who are 3 and 6, pick up from me when it was something I’d said or done days or even weeks prior to that date. Clearly our kids are watching and noticing when we chat on our cellphones and drive or when we check our emails at red lights or respond to one quickly. And in the vein of not mocking people and then being guilty, I will admit, I do that. I tell myself it’s okay if I’m stopped at a red light. But it’s not okay because do I really think my girls are going to make that distinction when they are teens learning to drive? Do I really want to be guilty of do as I say, not as I do, when it comes to their safety? Not to mention, I take the time to purchase the safest car seat, learn how to install it properly and load them into their car seats for every trip, so why would I risk their safety by being a distracted driver?

Again, hypocritical, anyone?

I absolutely love  the idea another blogger, Meghan Leahy, proposed recently on this very same issue: she suggests we make it a family pledge to not check email, respond to email or talk on the phone in the car.  Here’s why I love this idea – because if my kids are holding me to it and they know the rules – then I am going to hold myself to it. Look, I know it was one of Oprah’s big missions last year but I don’t answer to Oprah. Continuing my confessional theme today, even the new law isn’t as likely to change my behavior as my word to my kids and their ability to call out  my infraction. And seeing as how I seem to be inadvertently raising two snitches, they will GLADLY call it to my attention.

What do you think? Care to join me in the family pledge? Finally, you can get involved by visiting for information and resources on contacting  lawmakers, inviting family and friends to take action, and lending your voice to this vital movement. Even a few minutes on that Facebook page will send goosebumps up your body because the words from parents who have lost a teenager are chilling and sobering. I really am certain that no email or phone call is worth it.  At least none that I am receiving are….

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Today’s Topic: Cars, Safety and Kids

A few things have come together to inspire today’s expert topic: cars, safety, technology and kids. First – we need a new car chez moi and we’re engaged in a lively debate over getting an SUV with a third row seat, or not, as we stare down many years of carpooling (our old vehicle is a 2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee). Second – because our car is old, it seems to me that technology has changed pretty dramatically in vehicles since our last purchase and I need to learn more about what’s out there. So for today’s installment in the Wired Momma DC Moms expert series I turned to Amy Brink, a friend and attorney, who works for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade association in DC that represents 12 auto manufacturers. Amy is knee-deep in automotive issues every day, as well as a mom to 2 kids and expecting her third in a few months. So who better to find out what the latest and greatest technology is in vehicles, what the scoop is on saving a few bucks in gas and a few other fun facts for the kids?

Everyone, including Oprah, likes to talk about distracted driving and the importance of not texting while driving. Of course, I am in full agreement and know that my state, Maryland, just this year passed a bill to prohibit texting and driving, or even reading texts while stopped at a red light. But to me, distracted driving is about more than technology  and how we are using it. Frankly, as a mother of 2 young kids, what defines distracted driving in my car is my kids. A trip around the beltway or down the street usually involves kids arguing, instant demands that I retrieve whatever they’ve just dropped and loud fighting over whether we’re listening to the Backyardigans or Little Mermaid soundtrack. To say that I am distracted would be an understatement. Tell me, what kind of new and emerging technologies are auto manufacturers putting in vehicles to help parents stay safe and focused, despite what their kids are doing? 

New model vehicles today are equipped with voice integration systems, so the driver can talk without having to look away from the steering wheel. Additionally, you can talk-to-text, so you can respond to a message without averting your eyes from the road by simply stating a command. Many systems allow you to preset a certain number of different pre-determined text responses like “On the road, be home soon.”  You then can tell the car to respond with that command, we’ll call it command 3, and then you’ve responded without taking your eyes off the road. A recent study found that 80% of all crashes happened because a driver looked away from the road seconds prior to the crash.  Voice recognition is now available in over 90% of models, up from just 70% in 2009.

Also, I’ve found that voice recognition technology keeps the phone out of sight of the kids, which I think is helpful because then when the  kids don’t see it, they don’t want to play with it and they don’t feel like they are competing for my attention. Another newer technology is OnStar. We have OnStar in our vehicle and I will admit, I did put my daughter in one day and then locked the car with the keys inside the vehicle. It was like that episode of Modern Family where Cam locks Lilly into the car, I was totally freaking out. The woman in the shop actually came outside and held an umbrella over the window. Anyhow, OnStar unlocked the doors right away and while I’m confessing things here, would you believe I did it AGAIN – not two minutes later – talk about mommy brain. You have no idea how grateful I was for OnStar.

Loved this scene in Modern Fam of Cam trying to open the car

Finally because your Jeep is a little older, you might not be aware of how many newer models come equipped with a video player in the back seat or satellite radio. The kids can listen to the video with their headphones on and the parents can still carry on a regular conversation.

All of these new features sound fantastic – and I loved that episode of Modern Family. I’ve also been coveting the iPod sync my sister has in her Mini Cooper, especially because I despise listening to the commercials on the radio. As I consider the built-in video players for our next vehicle, I’m torn because it is something I’ve actually ached for when I hit that unexpected traffic jam on the beltway but I can see how there’s likely an issue with setting boundaries and expectations with the kids. What’s your experience on this front? 

Well, as a mom to 2 young kids, I certainly face that battle every day. We’ve worked really hard at setting boundaries with the kids on when they can and can not watch a movie in the car. They know that for the commute to daycare or home, they aren’t going to watch a video, but certainly for longer distances it’s a real treat to have access to it. Just like everything else with them, we try to be consistent so they know what to expect with it, it’s a privilege to watch the movie, not an automatic right.  And for the record, it can be a life-saver in those unexpected Saturday afternoon beltway traffic jams.
That makes sense. Now moving on to safety technology and emerging technologies, everyone has heard of anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control. What other types of new safety technologies are automakers installing in vehicles that parents should know about before heading off to the showroom floor?  To me, just the idea of heated or cooled seats seems like wonderful technology.

Well, personally, the blind-spot assist technology has been really wonderful. Basically when another vehicle is in your blind spot, as detected by sensors built into your vehicle, a small light will illuminate in your rearview mirror to let you know. It can be really helpful, again, especially when you are in a rush or the kids are distracting you. In terms of emerging technology, vehicle-t0-vehicle communication is really pretty amazing.  What it means is that vehicles will be able to talk to one another.  For example, say that a monitoring system picks up that all cars are turning on their windshield wipers at mile marker 48, your vehicle can then ready itself for inclement weather and alert you to an upcoming weather front. Or, maybe cars are all suddenly shifting to the far right of a lane – this driver behavior can then alert the city that there’s a pothole in the road. Another example might be when two cars are approaching the same intersection, vehicle-to-vehicle communications can determine that one of the vehicles isn’t preparing to stop – even though they have a stop sign, and can warn the other driver. 

Very cool stuff to look out for. So these are technologies to look for in the future?

There’s lots of cool stuff in the works.  One thing to keep in mind is that car shoppers value safety – so, automakers compete against one another to build cars consumers know are safe.  That means each company is doing lots of research and experimenting with things behind closed doors to beat the competition.  In the end, the consumers win.  In general, though, I think you’re seeing automakers take on the next generation of safety technologies – which are the types of technologies that help a driver avoid a crash in the first place.  Things like lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control are great examples of that.

Until then, off topic, but still fun for families, kids as young as 3 and 4 are learning about the environment and the importance of recycling in preschool. I’ve heard that many parts of the vehicle are recycled, can you give me some fun facts that I can relay to my kids about what’s been recycled in vehicles today?

Sure, they might like to know that old blue jeans are used for trunk liners and carpets inside the cars.

Some sweet 80s jeans as carpet liners, anyone?

 The auto manufacturers also study nature to help learn how to build new technologies into vehicles. For example, one manufacturer is studying locusts because they fly in tight formations and are masters of collision avoidance. So what can we learn from how they locusts travel and avoid collisions, and apply it to safety technology in vehicles? Really interesting stuff.

Final question – gas prices are still pretty high. As we head into the July 4 holiday, long road trips and traffic, do you have any tips on getting the most out of our mileage?

Sure. Before you hit the road, check your tire pressure. Keeping your tires properly inflated can improve your fuel efficiency by almost 3%, which translates into about a tank of gas per year. On distance drives, maintain a steady speed. Most people don’t realize that every 5 mph over 60 mph they are driving is the equivalent to spending an extra 20 cents per gallon on gas. And a third tip that is easy to remember is be sure you tighten your gas cap all the way – you can check your owners manual for specifics on your vehicle but typically you should hear the cap click as you tighten it. A loose gas cap is an easy escape route for gas.

Thank you to Amy for her great advice on autos today. And I’ll keep you all posted on if we end up with a vehicle with a third row seat or not – I’d love to hear from readers who do have an SUV with a third row and if it’s been as used as you expected it would be.