Imagine walking down a busy street and suddenly hearing a cry coming from a parked car. When you look closer, you spot a baby in the backseat and notice that all the windows are closed. It's a hot summer day and the parents are nowhere to be found.
What do you do?
Tragically, every year almost 40 children die from hyperthermia after being left alone in a hot car. But many more kids are saved when strangers come to their rescue. ABC's "What Would You Do?" wanted to see what ordinary people would do if they came upon a baby left alone in the backseat on a hot summer day.
For our ABC News experiment we parked a car on a busy suburban street for two days. Inside, we left a lifelike doll called a "reborn," made to look like a newborn infant. The doll's battery-operated breathing mechanism made it all the more convincing.
We hired an actress to play the baby's mother and, with the help of a dozen surveillance cameras, watched the action from a nearby building. Janette Fennell, president of Kids and Cars, a group that promotes car safety for children, watched as the footage unfolded.
What we learned both surprised and alarmed us.
Initially we left the baby in the car with the windows rolled up. To someone passing by, it looked as if the child were sleeping. We sat and waited for more than half an hour, but nobody seemed to notice the baby in the backseat. According to Fennell, almost 50 percent of kids who are left in cars by accident are usually forgotten by their caretakers while asleep. The only hope for these kids is if a stranger notices them inside. But during the first part of our experiment, nobody seemed to look inside our car, and the baby went unnoticed.
We decided it was time for our baby to attract some attention. We placed a small speaker in the front seat of the car, propped open the sunroof and played the sound of a newborn wailing as people passed by. We were surprised to see that many were still oblivious. People seemed too busy to notice, many listening to their iPods or using their cell phones. Meanwhile, our car was getting hotter and hotter.
Before the experiment, we installed a thermometer to measure the temperature inside our vehicle. Although the temperature outside didn't rise much above 80 degrees, our car heated up to almost 120 degrees.
"It doesn't have to be hot outside for a child to die in a car," said Jan Null, professor of Meteorology at San Francisco State University. "Last year a child died in a car when it was 66 degrees outside."
"An infant can die in a car in as little as 10 minutes," he said. "Their bodies heat up three times as fast as an adult's body temperature. So in a situation where an adult would be fine, but uncomfortable, a baby would not."
As we kept watching, we noticed that many people heard the sound of our baby crying and still kept walking. We asked Joanne Bowman, a mother herself, why she didn't stop.
"You just assume that someone is in the car with the child," she told us. "It is really something you would imagine not happening. You don't imagine that there's a child left by itself."