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Being mindful can halt hot-car deaths in state

Mississippi is currently leading the nation in heatstroke deaths due to children being left in cars, with two deaths in May in Grenada and Gluckstadt.

As the temperature rises this summer, locals and national organizations are hoping to create awareness and prevent other parents from making the same mistake. One way was National Heatstroke Prevention and Awareness Day on June 8.

Randall Weeks, a licensed professional counselor in Oxford, said he doesn’t think the psychology behind accidentally leaving children in cars is too complicated.

“People get distracted, busy, overwhelmed and their attention is given to whatever stressers they are experiencing,” he said, “whether it’s a big project at work, a disagreement with their significant other, or a myriad of other things.

“If a baby/child is quiet, the adult’s attention might not be drawn to them, so when they arrive at their destination, they are still focused on something other than the child.”

Jan Null, of the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science at San Jose State University, runs a website called noheatstroke.com. Null tracks cases about children who have died from heatstroke in vehicles.

“You guys (Mississippi) have had two deaths this year,” he said. “Sadly, you are leading the country. One was in Grenada on May 19, and one was the week before on May 11 in Gluckstadt. There have been nine total so far. They are all concentrated this year in the Southeast.”

Null said 54 percent of children who die of heatstroke in vehicles were accidentally forgotten; 29 percent are children who were playing, climbed inside a vehicle and couldn’t get out; and 17 percent are children whose parents leave them in a car for a period of time not realizing how the temperature may affect them.

“Going back to 1998, there have been 670 deaths that we know of,” he said. “These are only children. These are all heatstroke in vehicles.”

Null said it’s difficult to pinpoint the psychology of the incidents because it’s a hard topic about which to gather data.

“In the broad scale of deaths, 600 is not many,” he said. “It’s a pretty small sample size. And how do you do a controlled study on something like this?

“In a lot of cases, the person who leaves a child in a car is probably pretty reticent to talk about it, or won’t because there is litigation. To be able to really get into the minds of the people this has happened to is really a steep hill to climb.”

Tips available

Null said his website offers prevention tips, such as placing a stuffed animal on the front seat with you as a visual reminder that your child is in the car. Parents also can place their lunch in the backseat or something they automatically grab to take with them.

“Put your cellphone on the backseat so you don’t talk on the phone,” he said. “It’s a win-win there.”

Jay Hughes, state representative for House District 12, also wants to address the issue with legislation.

“The legislation I propose is to make a policy recommendation, not a mandate or anything that creates legal liability,” he said. “It would ask licensed day care providers to take reasonable steps to implement a policy that would make contact with any parent or designated adult when a scheduled child is not dropped off.

“This will not cure every situation, but if it saves the life of only one child it is worth it. Our public schools do this for other reasons, but it does work. It is important to me because we have had two hot-car deaths in Mississippi recently. It is so senseless and devastating for the families.”

Amber Andreasen, director of the national organization KidsAndCars.org, is hosting a national campaign to bring awareness to this issue.

“We will be making available many new and updated materials on our website,” she said.

The website lists some of the psychological reasons parents sometimes forget to remove children from vehicles.

“New parents suffer from exhaustion due to lack of sleep, hormone changes, stress and changes in their normal routine,” the website reads. “Any one of these changes can cause your memory to fail at a time you least expect it. Even the best of parents or caregivers can overlook a sleeping baby in a car; and the end result can be injury or death.”

Weeks said many of us in Oxford are simply too busy, so it’s important to keep in mind this summer.

“We have so many balls in the air to juggle that one or more of them is going to get dropped,” he said. “The person who forgets they have a child in the car is not living in the present moment. If they were, their awareness would include the fact that, ‘I have a child in the backseat that I’m taking to day care.’”

Weeks said mindfulness is not restricted to meditation or spirituality.

“Mindfulness can be applied to the most simple, mundane tasks,” he said. “When we give our attention to what is going on in the present moment, we are much less likely to let small things slip by us, and we certainly would be fully aware that we have a baby in the backseat of our car.”

About LaReeca Rucker

LaReeca Rucker is a writer, reporter and adjunct journalism instructor at the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism and New Media.

A veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she spent a decade at the Gannett-owned Clarion-Ledger - Mississippi's largest daily newspaper - covering stories about crime, city government, civil rights, social justice, religion, art, culture and entertainment for the paper's print and web editions. She was also a USA Today contributor.

This year, she received a first place award from the Mississippi Press Association for “Best In-Depth Investigative Reporting.” The story written in 2014 for The Oxford Eagle chronicles the life of a young mother with two sons who have epilepsy, and details how she is patiently hoping legalized cannabis oil experimentation will lead to a cure for their disorder.

Her website is www.lareecarucker.com.

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