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British Columbia B.C. seeking measures to prevent children being left in hot cars after infant dies

Public safety minister Mike Farnworth, seen here, is awaiting the outcome of investigations into last Thursday’s death in Burnaby.

Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press

The death of a 16-month-old infant left in a car in Burnaby for hours has prompted B.C.'s public-safety minister to ask his staff to assess measures other jurisdictions have taken to deal with the tragic occurrences.

Mike Farnworth said in a statement that he is open to a government role in facilitating the use of technology to protect children from such a fate.

However, his office said that he’s awaiting the outcome of investigations into last Thursday’s tragedy. Both the RCMP and the B.C. Coroners Service are looking into the incident.

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“The government would support the use of technology that provides an opportunity to make cars safer in anyway possible − whether an app or sensors and alarms − to avert tragedies involving deaths inside a vehicle due to heat, or just the fact that a child or pet is left inside." Mr. Farnworth said in the statement.

The coroners service in Quebec has recommended that all vehicles sold in Canada should have an alert system that could prevent leaving kids or animals in vehicles and he cited the other investigations, Mr. Farnworth’s office said.

There has been a debate in the United States about compelling auto manufacturers to install such systems.

RCMP in Burnaby responded last Thursday at 5:45 p.m. to a 911 call about an unconscious infant in a car. The child was transported to hospital, and declared dead.

The Mounties said the child’s father was at the scene of the incident, near a private school for young children, and both parents are co-operating with a continuing investigation.

Lewis Smith, national projects manager for the Canada Safety Council, welcomed Mr. Farnworth’s interest in the challenging issue.

“It’s very hard to promise something specific in the immediate wake of an incident like this," he said from Ottawa. “The fact that they’re looking at the evidence and trying to figure out the best solution is better than a knee-jerk reaction that may not be the best long-term solution.”

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Mr. Smith said the debate over the issue of young children being left in cars has revolved around technology, public education and legislative solutions.

However, he said there are no broad statistics on how often these incidents occur in Canada, partly because such cases are classified in various ways, such as a heat-stroke-related fatality. “No core groups of stats are accumulated anywhere,” he said.

Mr. Smith said it has been more of an issue in the United States because of a larger population and an abundance of states with year-round hot weather that put more children at risk.

“A lot of people look at these types of situations occurring and think, ‘That’s just negligence.’ But the truth of the matter is there are very few parents who would deliberately put themselves or their children in situations like these,” he said.

“It really is just a matter of temporary forgetfulness that happens in inopportune moments.”

David Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, has studied the issue over the years.

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In an analysis posted on his website, he refers to a 2014 online survey of 1,000 parents. The survey found that 25 per cent of those with children under the age of three said they had occasionally forgotten that their child was in a car with them.

“Research indicates that children have been forgotten in cars by non-parental caretakers and mothers and fathers at all levels of socioeconomic status and education," he said in the assessment.

Prof. Diamond wrote that his theory is that children forgotten in cars results from the driver losing awareness of the presence of the child due to a complex memory dynamic − basically a parent fully intends to perform an action, such as attending to a child. However, something, perhaps an unrelated activity or incident, derails that intention.

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