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WETZSTEIN: Prevent car deaths with safety rules

- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

On July 8, when a Loudoun County father realized he had left his newly adopted 21-month-old son locked all day in a hot sport utility vehicle, he collapsed at the car, collapsed at the police station and remained hospitalized for days, according to news reports.

It doesn't take much imagination to understand why this parent or any loving adult whose fatal distraction killed a child doesn't want to go on with life.

"Some parents have committed suicide," says Janette Fennell, who has monitored non-traffic vehicular fatalities of children since 1996.

Todd and Melody Costello of Medina, Ohio, can relate to the Loudoun County parents' experience.

On July 29, 2002, Mr. Costello mistakenly drove to work instead of to the baby sitter's and left 9-month-old Tyler strapped in his car seat for more than three hours. By the time he remembered Tyler, it was too late.

The Costellos survived the loss of their son by clinging to their relationships with God, each other, their 4-year-old daughter, family and friends.

"For me, I am very firm in my belief in marriage and what I signed up for [on my wedding day] in 1997," Mrs. Costello said. "There was no way I was going to walk away from the situation. I also felt I had an obligation to show [daughter] Emily, how do you get through something like that."

How does a spouse forgive the other spouse after this kind of death? Mrs. Costello said, in her case, it was to support her husband, remember why she married him, and love him.

"I have such a vivid recollection of that horrible scene when Todd came into the hospital room. He was just a mess," Mrs. Costello told me. "And I knew at that moment that there would be no other way for me to go on but to support him as well. That's what marriage is all about. When you get down to the heart of it, it's about supporting each other. You become one."

The prayers of others, including distant strangers, helped. So did accepting the acts of service and comforting words from friends and family. Grief counseling gave the couple important opportunities to talk, especially when they felt overwhelmed by depression, heartache and defensiveness.

"It doesn't go away. But time does heal," Mrs. Costello said.

The Costellos have seen a return of joy through raising their daughter and welcoming another daughter. They remain willing to talk to other grieving parents since there are few (if any) support groups for this kind of tragedy.

They also assist in car-safety Web sites such as Mrs. Fennell's kidsandcars.org and 4RKidssake.org. The latter group promotes August as "Purple Ribbon Month" to alert adults to the dangers of leaving children unattended in cars.

Mrs. Fennell urges parents to implement ironclad car rules. For instance, the child's car seat should always have a large stuffed animal in it. When the child is put in the car seat, the stuffed animal goes next to the driver as a reminder that there's a baby on board.

Many parents place unforgettable items - purses, briefcases, employee badges - next to the child's car seat, while others literally leash themselves to it so they can't leave without the child.

Mrs. Fennell supports laws forbidding anyone from leaving a child unattended in a car. She also wants to see the auto industry create sensors and seat-belt alarms for back seats. She theorizes that the all-out effort in the mid-1990s to protect children from accidental deaths from front-seat air bags by putting them in back seats has led to the unintended consequence of too many adults accidentally forgetting their children in vehicles.

"Out of sight, out of mind," says Mrs. Fennell, who notes that while virtually no children now die from air bags, child hyperthermia deaths have gone from three deaths a year to about one death every 10 days.

"This is totally preventable," Mrs. Fennell says. "Rather than have the auto industry and government and other people talking about bad parents, we need them to come together and solve this problem."

Cheryl Wetzstein's column appears on Tuesdays and Sundays. She can be reached at cwetzstein@washington times.com.