The scariest scenarios are the ones you can imagine actually happening to you. So, as I am an absent-minded dope, I cannot imagine a more horrifying mistake than the one made by Brian Palmer Gilbert. He absent-mindedly left his 5-month-old son Kyle in his car for two hours while he was visiting his in-laws, and the boy died.
"The father forgot," San Jose Police Sgt. Armando Realyvasquez told the San Francisco Chronicle. Afterwards, according to Realyvasquez, Gilbert "was very distraught and remorseful. He realized that he made a terrible and tragic mistake." Police urged friends and family not to leave the parents alone for fear they might do something rash, they are so traumatized.
Now, I hope and pray that if I'm blessed with a son someday, I'll be on the ball enough not to make an error a thousandth as disastrous. But, say I do. Should I go to jail for the mistake? Considering that the death of a child is the ultimate punishment for most people, do you think that if it were against the law to kill your kid thusly, you would be less likely to do it?
Well, apparently legislators and journalists around the country think you would. The dead-children-in-cars issue is poised to become the media-created "crisis" of the summer, and poor Kyle the unfortunate poster boy.
Every summer the media needs to lament an epidemic of some kind - hurricanes, apples "poisoned" by Alar, whales trapped in ice, whatever. This year's spectacle, with grieving parents and plenty of finger pointing, has the added benefit of being a personal tragedy most of us can relate to.
On July 26, NBC Nightly News led off with this pressing national problem. Correspondent Fredricka Whitfield summed up the situation as she saw it, "Since 1996, 120 children have died after being left alone in sweltering cars. But only nine states across the country have legislation in place making it a crime."
What she failed to mention is how such legislation against leaving children in cars would have prevented these accidents. Presumably, the vast majority of those 120 cases involved parents or guardians who did not intend to kill their children. And, if they did mean to kill their kids, we certainly do have laws "making it a crime." We call them homicide and manslaughter laws.
However, if these parents didn't mean to kill their kids, how on earth could we punish them more than they will undoubtedly punish themselves?
Think of it this way: Would you stub your toe less often if you knew there were a $25 fine against toe-stubbing? Would you get paper cuts less frequently if there were a law requiring you to perform 10 hours of community service every time you sliced your finger? Of course not. Nobody wants to get paper cuts or to stub their toes, but it happens.
And nobody wants their kid to die tragically in a hot car.
But this obvious fact won't stop the growing national movement to outlaw parents from leaving their kids unattended in cars. A well-meaning Missouri-based group called Kids 'N Cars, is lobbying the Missouri legislature for such a law. Illinois is considering one, too. The day after the "Nightly News" story, NBC's sister network, MSNBC, devoted coverage to the "epidemic" throughout the day. The implied message: Government must do something!
Well, we should remember that there are real costs and unintended consequences to attempts to ban bad things simply because they are bad. For example, safety advocates want the Federal Aviation Administration to require child-safety seats in airplanes. But the FAA says such a measure would raise costs for travelers without saving many lives (plane crashes tend to kill the buckled-up anyway). Those costs would in turn encourage more people to drive, which is much more dangerous than flying.
Requiring the police to check cars for unattended babies might sound nice, but the cops won't be doing anything else while they're doing that. Also, more parents might leave their kids home alone, but being unsupervised at home isn't exactly safe either.
One hundred and twenty kids in four years translates into 120 individual tragedies, but it's not a national crisis. Just to put it in perspective, about six children die every year from tipped-over furniture and entertainment equipment, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. About 50 small children die every year from drowning in buckets, mostly in their back yards. And most of them were left unsupervised for only a few minutes. Should the government ban buckets?
There's nothing wrong- and everything right - with educating parents and car owners about the dangers of leaving a baby (or pet) unsupervised in vehicles. There's nothing wrong - and everything right - with punishing parents for real instances of abuse and neglect. But none of this will change the fact that bad things happen, even when they're against the law.