Dr Andrea Tosatto, Psychologist Image Credit: Supplied photo

Dubai Pressures of modern life and a false sense of security provided by power car locks are robbing people of their balance — so much so that they forget children inside a hot car, a Dubai psychologist has warned.

Two children died of suspected heat stroke recently in the UAE just a week apart after they were left inside a car with the mercury hovering in the mid-40s.

“If there’s an increase in such incidents, we have to ask ‘What can we do as a community to avoid this?’,” said Dr Andrea Tosatto, psychologist at the Synergy Integrated Medical Centre in Dubai. “We have to understand that these are not a result of an action of a bad parent or guardian. Most of the time, it is a result of an unhealthy lifestyle we find ourselves in – doing multi-tasking without achieving one thing properly,” he said.

“The stresses of modern society and the distractions of our age make us lose our moorings. The previous generation did not have mobile phones and had no central locking systems. Today, we are too busy or get too distracted, that sometimes we have an altered perception of time,” he added.

There have been past instances of children being left behind in cars. Two school children died in 2008 and 2009 after they were locked up in a school bus in Abu Dhabi.

Vehicle hyperthermia deaths are not unique only to the UAE, though.

Two deaths were reported in Italy last year. On March 14, a two-year-old boy died of suffocation after his father left him in a car outside their house in Chennai, India. In the US, the death toll from children left in hot vehicles reached 537 since 1998 -- an average of 38 annually –- according to Golden Gate Weather Services (http://ggweather.com/heat/) which has tracked such deaths.

Ten children this year in the US

Car suffocation has already killed 10 children in the US this year, the latest victim being a three-month-old infant left inside a car in Indiana on July 7, the day after a five-year-old girl was found dead inside a car in Umm Al Quwain.

Dr Tosatto said modern life’s trappings aimed to make life easier also make some people forget about what’s important.
“There is a lot of action we do that’s triggered by subconscious action, such as remotely locking a car. It is our auto-pilot system, the things we do without paying much attention. The same thing happens when we press or release the brake pedal while driving.”

While people press power door locks several times a day, carrying a child in and out of our car is more of a random action.
“In our mind, remembering that a child is in the car is not automatic, while pressing the central lock is. It is difficult to judge someone who forgets something, but in this case, there was a clear negligence of the parents or guardian.”

Two safety experts, meanwhile, said leaving children unattended in a car for any length of time is an accident waiting to happen.

Andy Dean, lead adviser to Al Futtaim-Exova, a Dubai-based façade technology laboratory, said: “Common sense tells us that it should be made illegal for adults to leave children unattended inside a vehicle, regardless of the time of day. In other jurisdictions this is considered negligent and offenders are punished by law.”

Dean explained that while glass used in most cars is “asymmetrical” — designed to reflect heat — this cannot overcome the process of solar heat gain.

“The light coming in through the glass heats the internal materials up and that energy just bounces within and heats up the internal space of the vehicle. So what you end up with is an internal space that is significantly hotter than the outside temperature,” said Dean.


Bill Carter, a car safety expert and head of valuations and research for automotive information company Autodata Middle East, has highlighted the dangers of today’s central locking system.

“Over-reliance leads to habit, and habit makes you less mindful of other important things,” said Carter.

He stressed, however, that power locks aren’t the culprit. “It’s people, pure and simple. You become over-reliant on technology and you develop a habit of locking the car. One day, it takes just one mistake to get a lifetime of heartbreak.”
Central locking system simultaneously locks or unlocks all car doors at a press of a button. Carter said that while today’s electric door locks have greatly improved anti-theft features, people don’t realise its dangers.

“Today’s central locking system is very safe … it is doing what it is supposed to do. It’s the drivers who are not doing what they are supposed to do. It’s a false sense of security -- and a lack of common sense. Even locking an adult inside could be dangerous.”

Power door locks first came out in 1914 but it was not until the early ’80s when its use became widespread. In the last 10 years, it had been greatly improved for security. Carter said that today, an adult is incapable of disabling a deadlocked central locking system, let alone a five-year-old child.

Most of the car-heat deaths (86 per cent) occurred in the under-3 age category; two 14-year-olds were recorded as the oldest children to have died of car hyperthermia in the US since 1998.

“Most modern cars built in the last 10-15 years have a ‘dead locking’ feature. Once it is locked, it is deadlocked. Without the remote control, you can’t over-ride it as the locks become inoperable. So when somebody breaks a window to get in or steal the car, they can’t open the door -- internal handles won’t work. Consequently, if you lock a child in the car, you can’t get them out unless you get the remote control to unlock the deadlocking system.”

Carter said: “Even two minutes is dangerous, because if anything happens, if a fire starts due to electrical or fuel leaks, then there’s no way to get the child out if you’re not there. Even if people break a window, they still cannot open a door.”
Carter said that installing a child sensor or making it a mandatory safety feature -- just as most cars come with anti-theft feature today – won’t work either. “If you get a fly caught inside the car, it may set off the alarm. Or thieves can misuse this. It’s more about educating people not to leave children in a car, period.”

“I am a parent and a grandparent, and I will never ever leave a child in a car. I’ve seen how quickly a car can burn out if it catches fire – within three minutes flat! It could be an electrical problem, as cars have more and more electronics on them, or a fuel leak. Under no circumstances should parents or adults leave a child unattended in a car.”