A Low-Tech Fix for Hot Car Deaths


Summer is here. Warm weather, the grill, vacations galore. But each summer I also cringe, because I know I’m going to starting seeing stories about kids being left in cars and dying.

Before I became a parent, I couldn’t understand how this could happen. How could you possibly leave a kid behind in a car? It seemed like criminal negligence at its worst.

Now that I am a parent, I guess I can understand a little better. You get into a routine, and the routine takes over. Most of the hot-car-deaths you read about are the result of a change in routine, like when parents switch who’s doing drop-off for daycare. The parents often seem totally normal and very loving, which raises the specter that “this could happen to anyone”.

How Much Is Your Kid Worth?

But first, what in the world do hot-car-deaths have to do with personal finance? I’m glad you asked.

I’ve always tried to think logically and consistently across my portfolio of assets. And yes, I’m a little weird – I include my kids in that portfolio. It may seem base to some to talk about the “value” of a child, but I’d argue that’s exactly what you should be doing. I’m not sure exactly what my kids are worth, but since I value their lives much higher than my own, and I value my own more than just about anything else, they’re clearly the most valuable things in my life. Any financial decision that touches them must account for that.

AND it’s often a desire to provide for our children, rather than acquire more stuff, that leads to both parents working. But both parents working, under heavy stress, dangerously married to routines, can raise the risk of this tragedy. So there’s the inconsistency I want to attack: scrambling around for some extra nickels and dimes may increase the risk of you losing the most valuable (by far, I’d wager) thing in your life.

If you’re going to put your kid in a car, especially if you’re in a two working parent household, you need to acknowledge and mitigate the risk. You should spend a good bit of time and effort thinking how to safeguard your kid and prevent hot-car-death. And yet, I’ve known folks who’ve done more to safeguard their lunch in the company refrigerator (\”I’ve put my name in bold letters AND slid it waaaay to the back\”) than they have to lower the risk of leaving their kid behind in a car.

Change the Routine

The organization kidsandcars.org has an excellent list of tips (also listed below) to avoid hot car deaths, and they’re focused on building redundancy and breaking routines.

It’s a great list. If you do everything on it, you may drop your risk close to 0.

But there’s one thing missing from their list. I’ve found that I’m doing something just as good as anything they’ve got. Maybe better.


My fix for hot-car-deaths? Storytelling

We all have our go-to entertainment in the car. Some listen to music. Others talk on the phone. I’m partial to sports radio. But it never felt right to just pop on the radio with my infant son in the car. I needed to do something involving him, even though his contributions would be rather limited.

So long before my eldest could speak, or even fully grasp what I was saying, I started telling him stories. Some of them were the classics, some were my creation, but they kept flowing whenever he was in the car. I already knew there were huge benefits to infants hearing lots of conversation – every baby book said so. Kiddos love the sound of their parents’ voices, more words heard = better eventual vocabulary and comprehension, and it even boosts their brain power.

While I may have struggled to fill the silence if I were just rambling (“Son, let’s talk about my work. It sucks.”), it was easy to keep the flow constant when telling stories.

A Bigger Brain Is Just the Bonus

But I quickly discovered a nice side benefit: there was no way I was going to forget my son when I was telling him a story. (I guess this is actually the main benefit, but you get my point). It felt majorly weird to be telling a story to my son in his rear-facing seat, when he was not visible, often silent, and, at best, could just gurgle or coo. But this was a shocking break to my “normal” driving routine and quickly became an incredibly strong association with having him in the car with me.

The risk of me getting to my office and forgetting he was in the backseat was insanely low because I’d have asked myself, “Why am I talking to myself?” and “Why, as a subject, have I chosen the Tortoise and the Hare?”

As long as you’re a reasonably sane person, you will seriously question, even at a subconscious level, why you are telling a children’s story to yourself if you think you’re alone.

Nowadays, when my boys get in the car, the radio goes off, and the stories begin. When the boys are gone, the radio goes back on immediately. It’s elegant in its simplicity.

And it gets even better. As soon as my kids were able to talk (or make talkish sorta sounds), they started requesting stories – that was an added check. No option for me to forget and just drift with my thoughts. No sooner have I taken my seat in the car then I hear a chorus of “Story, please”. It prints more politely than it sounds – they’re pretty demanding.

I hate to focus on the tragedies, but I’ll wager the poor parents who forgot their kids were chatting on the phone, or listening to music/talk radio, or planning their workday in their head. I will wager none of them were telling their kids stories.

Start Early

The most important thing, though, is to start telling stories while your child is still rear-facing. There are a number of good reasons for this:

  • Rear-facing is the most likely setup for a kid to be forgotten
  • You may initially suck at telling stories, but infants are very patient critics
  • You’ll improve with practice, and you need to do so (toddlers and young children are not patient critics)
    You’ll not only hone your craft as a storyteller, but also get much better at timing. Arriving at your destination mid-story is just poor showmanship, and finishing early leads means you need to start another. And timing a story’s end to your child’s destination is yet another built-in check.


Telling Stories is Hard

But wait a minute. Telling stories is hard. I have to tell stories at night AND while driving around?

Yep. Welcome to parenthood. Think about it this way:

  • Make hay while the sun shines
    There will be a day when your teenage kid doesn’t want to hear you speak, much less tell stories. You can go back to your radio then.
  • Telling stories is really, really fun
    When I’ve hit it out of the park with a story, my boys are ecstatic. During the last school year, we had a series going where they were the top Jedi (natch) under Yoda and kicked some serious ass every day on the way to school. They’d have huge smiles and be really fired up to start the day, and the last thoughts of me before drop-off were happy and warm. Isn’t that better than banal chats about “You gonna have a good day? You excited about that sandwich we packed you?”
  • It’s a great investment
    Beyond improving my kids vocabulary and brain power, telling stories builds a special bond. I’d bet big money that dad’s stories are going to be something that my sons remember for a long time, and if I’m lucky, they’ll continue the tradition.

But I don’t have the mental capacity to come up with lots of stories!

Hang on there, pardner. No one said you have to come up with stories from scratch.


First, start off with Aesop’s fables, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Andersen, and the like. If you don’t know those by heart, shame on you. Seriously – these are awesome and you’ve missed out. The good news is these awesome classics are all available as free e-books.

After you’ve done all of the classics and gotten comfortable, start using your creativity. It’s in your DNA: long before the printed word, our species sat around the campfire and told stories. Channel your inner caveman or woman and just get started.

I’ve probably now told several thousand stories. They aren’t all high art, but I play to the audience – I know what they like, and my formula delivers the goods. I push the limits of their vocabulary, weave in a little morality here and there, and do everything possible to excite their imaginations.

See below for the great advice from kidsandcars.org, but remember that storytelling can be an incredibly powerful tool as well and has those brain boosting powers to boot. There\’s no reason not to take a “both/and” approach and just do them all.

And please let me know in the comments if you have special tricks to remember your kid when driving around. Or want to hear my secret formula for stories for young boys. Or want me to tell you a story.


Safety Tips from KidsandCars.org

  • Never leave children alone in or around cars; not even for a minute.
  • Put something you\’ll need like your cell phone, handbag, employee ID or brief case, etc., on the floorboard in the back seat underneath the child\’s car seat.
  • Get in the habit of always opening the back door of your vehicle every time you reach your destination to make sure no child has been left behind. This will soon become a habit.  We call this the \”Look Before You Lock\” campaign.
  • Keep a large stuffed animal in the child\’s car seat when it\’s not occupied. When the child is placed in the seat, put the stuffed animal in the front passenger seat. It\’s a visual reminder that anytime the stuffed animal is up front you know the child is in the back seat in a child safety seat.
  • Make arrangements with your child\’s day care center or babysitter that you will always call if your child will not be there on a particular day as scheduled.
  • Make sure all child passengers have left the vehicle after it is parked.
  • Keep vehicles locked at all times; even in the garage or driveway.
  • Keys and/or remote openers should never be left within reach of children.
  • When a child is missing, check vehicles and car trunks immediately.
  • If you see a child alone in a vehicle, get involved.  If they are hot or seem sick, get them out as quickly as possible. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
  • Be especially careful about keeping children safe in and around cars during busy times, schedule changes and periods of crisis or holidays.
  • Use drive-thru services when available. (restaurants, banks, pharmacies, dry cleaners, etc.)
  • Use your debit or credit card to pay for gas at the pump.


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