Matt Yglesias asks a good question: when a child dies of hyperthermia in a parked car because a parent simply forgot the child was there and left it behind, what’s the point of putting the bereaved parent through a manslaughter trial? Deterrence? Incapacitation? Retribution? Norm reinforcement? None of the usual arguments for punishment seems to add up. It’s a horrible error, but that’s all it is: an error. That’s the reason they put erasers on pencils and “delete” keys on keyboards.
Which suggests a different question: if in fact these things happen 15 to 25 times every year, how hard would it be to design a car seat that sets off an alarm after five minutes whenever:
1. The car is not running.
2. The doors are closed.
3. The child-seat safety belt is engaged.
Not very hard, I guess.
Which in a twisted way answers Matt’s original question: One reason to have a trial is to bring this to public attention. Not a good enough, reason, I’d say. Still, did you know how often this happened? I sure didn’t.
Update: Such a unit is available for $40; it works by sensing the child’s weight and plays a lullaby if the car is stopped with a child in the carseat. Other designs have been invented but not marketed; it’s not clear how big the market is; and there are liability issues. Last year, the auto manufacturers beat back a Congressional attempt to require such devices.