RS Classic: Distraction Is Deadly

>> Friday, May 28, 2010

As before, I'm reissuing a blogpost from my old Rocket Science blog. In this case, I referenced a serious concern that's particularly timely now that summer's steaming in - leaving children in cars. I know all of us parents would like to think it could never happen to us. Well, I thought that about my son getting his hands on adult medicine so it doesn't hurt to remind everyone. The "Fatal Distraction" article referenced below is still a good link and, since I first published it, it won the 2010 Pulitzer for feature article. It's long. It's heart-wrenching, but well worth the read and, in my case, reread. Bring tissues. Also, it looks like my son has come through this latest episode unscathed. Thank you for all your kind thoughts.

I wasn’t going to write on this topic today. I was innocently reading the New York Times when I stumbled upon a brief story titled “Who Forgets a Child in a Car?” which links an entirely different story in the Washington Post entitled “Fatal Distraction.” The first article advocated reading the entire post article, down to the end and she wasn’t lying. Every parent with small children should read it and I say it though it was probably the hardest thing to read I’ve ever read. Not because it was poorly written – oh no – but because it hurt so badly. Babies, left to die of heat related causes in cars, not by monsters, but by parents who loved them dearly. (I wrote several weeks ago about the power of just a few words. Think of the story and impact of this sentence when an expert is asked about the “worst” case: “The child pulled all her hair out before she died.“ It haunts me now, hours later.) For hours, today, I fought weeping (mostly failing) because, as an absent-minded but loving parent, I know this could happen to me (and I’m grateful that my husband is with me most times when I take my baby anywhere or I’d be much worse off). And, folks, it could happen to you. Not because you don’t love your children, but because it can happen to anyone.

It’s a specific problem, this hyperthermia, that has blossomed into a horrible fate almost unheard of before the mandate of rear-facing carseats in the back. Thirty-five to forty children dead per year is better than the hundreds that likely died before carseats became mandatory, but that is small comfort to the parents that will live with this tiny mistake for the rest of their lives, for, though the act was not heinous (in most cases), but results were. (And, yes, it is sometimes deliberate and sometimes a symptom of abuse/neglect or drug problems – but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Most are accidental according to this and this .) But it’s more than a question of location. It’s a matter of distraction.

Day in and day out we are demanding more of ourselves, more demands on time and attention, stresses and problems, eating into our sleep and forcing us to constantly juggle a dozen different tasks at once. Our kids are important to us, but they add to the load. Add to that the distractions that are part and parcel of this day and age (that our parents and grandparents never had to contend with): cell phones, PDAs, pagers, GPS, computers. We twitter and chat and talk and IM and and… hopefully, not in the car, but all of that adds to the interaction and preoccupation in the brain. Too much, too tired, too stressed, too busy, and our bodies go into automatic mode to where we can drive to work despite the distractions without ever realizing we forgot to stop at daycare and drop off the child. After all, we’ve done it so many times, our mind can play it back like it actually happened if we think about it later.

Hell. (Must stop crying)

There are steps we can take to improve this . There are steps mentioned here and another site dedicated to kids and car safety well worth checking out. I was surprised by the notion that there are technologically handy devices to prevent this that are all but unknown and not readily available and the reason why was striking. The same reason many are quick to judge the parent in such a situation is the same reason why the devices that can preclude this are not popular: people just don’t believe that they could ever do a thing like this. And, because of this mindset, they make themselves vulnerable to it.

But leaving children in cars is just part of it. Children crawl out of garden gates or sneak out of doors, they hang out behind a door that can smack them or underfoot where they can be stepped on. The phone rings at dinner time or bath time or any other moment and your eyes and attention aren’t with that baby.

And you don’t have to have children for distractions to be an issue. Cars are a bad place for them (and it happens all the time, and cellphones are just one of the distractions). It can happen with payments you forgot to make or critical directions you forgot to give. It can affect construction where a construction worker is hurt or can leave something constructed poorly where someone else, years later, pays the price (don’t get me started on the slipshod installation of my attic access. It’s a miracle it didn’t just drop out of the ceiling on us any time the past three years). It can be a missed reading on a monitor at a secure facility, or a missed gauge reading at a nuclear facility. It can be one of a thousand missed communications during manufacturing, building, testing or using complex (and dangerous) equipment.

Being pressed for time, feeling harried and stressed, pushing yourself to the limit (and who hasn’t heard this from everyone at one point or another) isn’t just inconvenient, it’s dangerous and, if we’re lucky, no one will pay the price for our distraction. Not because we don’t care about quality or don’t want to do the job right, not because we don’t care about safety, but because safety is just one of the many many balls we have to juggle.

It’s not surprise that schedule pressure has been cited at both Shuttle accidents. It’s a reason why I’m a firm advocate for having people devoted to safety and nothing else, not programmatic risks, not mission success, not budget, not schedule.

So, when you’re swamped and weary and stressed and frayed, when you’re struggling to juggle twenty more balls than you think you can, ask yourself, seriously, what you risk with your distractions and, what, realistically, is the worst case of one or more balls fall. If we’re talking about hurting a child or a coworker or an astronaut, some of those balls are likely to look pretty darned unimportant. Now, how do they compare with playing peek a boo with your tiny child. Yeah, I thought so.

So, let the answering machine catch the phone. Or let ‘em call back. Skip the IM one night. Get to work five minutes late. Forgo sweeping this morning. Make it a habit to open the door and check the car seat. Spend an hour wrestling with a five year old or playing “point out the facial feature” with the baby. Take the dog for a walk. Remember that all those things you juggle are so you can enjoy life. Don’t let the life pass you by because of it.

I’d write more, but I’ve got a movie night planned with my family.


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