The Perth tragedy is every parent's worst nightmare

A child yawns in her car seat. Photo: Getty Images
A child yawns in her car seat. Photo: Getty Images 

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare.

A father arrived to collect his child from daycare one afternoon, only to be told that the child was never dropped off. Inside his car parked out the front of the daycare centre in the Perth suburb of Helena Valley, the distraught man found his unconscious 11-month old son. Daycare staff attempted to resuscitate the child, to no avail, before the arrival of emergency services.

While police are interviewing the parents of the boy to determine exactly what happened, a police spokesman said the boy’s death was not being treated as suspicious.

It’s not difficult to imagine a bad night, a tired toddler, a  rushed morning  - all of which may have led to the child never being dropped off in the first place.

It’s been one of my biggest parenting fears ever since reading the Pulitzer-prize winning account 'Fatal Distraction' of similar story in the US, published in 2009.

Daycare staff called the Perth event an “unfortunate incident” and indeed, it could happen to any of us. Who else has driven right past the school gate with their mind pre-occupied, or driven halfway home along a familiar route, with no recollection of the journey?

We tumble through our busy lives without pause, from breakfast-dropoff-work to pickup-dinner-bath-bed, using schedules and routines to keep ourselves on track.

It's when the schedule changes that we often become unstuck, forgetting to pick a child up, or as the case may be here, forgetting to drop a child off.

Gene Weingarten, author of Fatal Distraction, researched the occurrence of these incidents in the US and found that they rose in the 1990s, as child seats became mandatory and often rear facing. Since then, there have been 15 to 25 cases of children left accidentally in cars each year in the US, prompting Weingarten to ask the question, what sort of person leaves their child in the car? The answer it seems, is all of us.


“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 counsellor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a paediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.”

So what can we do about it? No-one is suggesting that babies be placed in forward-facing seats earlier than necessary as that carries safety risks of its own.

On the Essential Baby forums parents have other ideas to prevent car death tragedies.

Request daycare call if your child does not arrive one morning. Place your purse or mobile phone in the rear seat, forcing you to open a rear door when you arrive at your destination. Set an alarm in your phone. Order a car seat which sends an alert if a weight is in the car seat for an extended period.

With hindsight we can come up with a million ideas on what we would have done differently. All we can do today is to go home and hold our kids close - and spare some love and sympathy to a family grieving an unimaginable loss.