Who leaves a baby in a hot car? A stressed-out Pixar employee and other parents who make tragic mistakes

Following the smash critical and box-office success of Toy Story in 1995, Emeryville’s Pixar was under intense pressure to make another artistically amazing, financially lucrative film. But the 1997 production for the sequel, Toy Story 2 1997 production was troubled for a number of reasons, and the creative staff found themselves putting in long hours under a highly compressed production schedule.

A third of Toy Story 2‘s animators wound up suffering carpal tunnel syndrome or repetitive stress injuries. But the gravest consequences occurred when an artist, in a mental haze, forgot to drop off his infant at daycare. Several hours later, he remembered that his baby was in the backseat of is car. 

Fortunately, rescue workers were able to “revive” the child, said Pixar President and founder Ed Catmull.

The Pixar chief, who is also president of Disney Animation Studios, recounted this near tragedy in an interview this week on KQED’s Forum. It was a show devoted to Catmull’s book Creativity Inc. and lessons Pixar learned over the years about how to nurture a creative, productive workforce.

His story about Pixar workers pushed themselves to states of physical and mental burn-out – with the life of an employee’s child put at risk – comes amid a summer of intense awareness around babies and young children dying in hot cars. 

A car’s temperature can rise rapidly in the hot sun — topping 120 degrees inside, on an 80-degree day. So far in the United States in 2014, at least 21 kids have died in hot-car related incidents, the Washington Post reported. 

Who leaves a child in a hot car, the story asks. “Parents on their way to work sometimes do it. So do parents who are rushing to the restroom or tackling odds and ends around the house. Sometimes, drowsy parents nod off; sometimes the parent (allegedly) smokes pot, eats pizza and watches HBO unaware of the looming tragedy.

In 2010, the Post won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for “Fatal Distraction,” a story that looks at how a host of factors are contributing to this deadly and particularly modern-day phenomenon.

Kids dying in hot cars was a relatively rare situation until the 1990s, writer Gene Weingarten reports. That’s when car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, so they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; “then, for even more safety for the very young,” baby seats were pivoted to face the rear.”

“If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them?” asked Weingarten. “What kind of person forgets a baby?

According to Weingarten, “death by hyperthermia,” the official designation for these sorts of cases, sometimes happens when an otherwise loving, attentive parent on day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and then just forgets the child is in the car. Weingarten reports that this situation happens in the United States 15 to 25 a year.
Emerging research on how the brain keeps track of information shows how these attention lapses occur, Weingarten reports.
He interviewed David Diamond, a professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida, who had this to say:
“In situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of auxiliary autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant but efficient basal ganglia is operating the car; that’s why you’ll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made or the scenery you saw.”
Ordinarily, Diamond told Weingarten, this delegation of duty “works beautifully.” But sudden or chronic stress can weaken the brain’s higher-functioning centers. A certain combination of factors show up in cases of parents forgetting their children in cars: stress, emotion, lack of sleep and change in routine.
“That’s when the basal ganglia is trying to do what it’s supposed to do, and the conscious mind is too weakened to resist,” Diamond said. “What happens is that the memory circuits in a vulnerable hippocampus literally get overwritten, like with a computer program. Unless the memory circuit is rebooted—such as if the child cries, or, you know, if the wife mentions the child in the back — it can entirely disappear.”
Of course, not all cases of infant hyperthermia involve situations of “simple but bewildering lapses of memory,” Weingarten writes.
In other cases there is a history of prior neglect or substance abuse or when parents knowingly leave their children in the car. An Oakland woman is facing two misdemeanor child endangerment charges after leaving her two children, 2 and 3, strapped in their car safety seats in July, while she went into a Livermore casino to gamble, the Contra Costa Times reported.
Weingarten quotes a national childs’ safety advocacy group that in about 40 percent of cases of child hyperthermia, authorities determine that the child’s death was an accident. In the other 60 percent of cases, authorities decide that the negligence was so great that the parents should be aggressively prosecuted. 
High tech wants to come to the rescue to help harried, distracted parents remember their kids, inventing “smart car seats,” wireless monitors or sensors in cars that detect motion or levels of carbon dioxide. 
The National Highway Safety Administration offers these low-tech suggestions: Always check the front and back seats of the car before you lock it and leave and put your purse, briefcase or something else you need to take with you next to the car seat so you won’t forget to check.
Pixar’s near-tragedy during the Toy Story 2 production prompted the company to rethink its work processes, not so much out of concern over the unlikely scenario that another worker would forget her child in the Pixar parking lot, but just to take better care of its most valuable assets: their employees. “We realized we had let this go too far down the path,” Catmull said. “We had to change behavior. We had to train people to take care of themselves physically.”

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