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Children forgotten in hot cars: a mental models approach for improving public health messaging


Introduction On average, in the USA, 37 young children die every year due to vehicular heatstroke. Additionally, over half of these incidents occur when a parent/caregiver forgets a child in a vehicle. While various governmental and child safety advocacy groups have worked to raise awareness about these tragedies, rigorous studies have yet to be conducted that examine the current understanding and effectiveness of this public health messaging.

Methods This study will employ a mental models approach in order to identify differences that exist between experts’ and parents’/caregivers’ knowledge and beliefs surrounding the topic of children forgotten in hot cars. We interviewed a diverse set of 25 parents/caregivers and seven experts in order to construct and explore these mental models.

Results A comparative analysis was conducted, and three key differences were observed between these mental models. Unlike the experts, the parents/caregivers in the study emphasised perceived lifestyle factors (eg, low-income parent) as important elements in increasing an individual’s likelihood of forgetting a child in a car. Importantly, the parents/caregivers primarily obtained information from news reports, while experts believed public health campaigns would reach more parents/caregivers. Lastly, while experts stressed that this tragedy could happen to anyone, most parents/caregivers failed to acknowledge that they could forget their own child in a car.

Conclusions To confront this denial, future public health messaging must strive to engage and reach all parents/caregivers. This can be accomplished using a multifaceted messaging strategy that includes personalising core messaging, providing additional resources to media outlets and building rapport between key partners.

  • heatstroke
  • children
  • vehicle
  • mental model
  • risk communication

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