The human brain . . . is a magnificent but jury-rigged device in which newer and more sophisticated structures sit atop a junk heap of prototype brains still used by lower species. At the top of the device are the smartest and most nimble parts: the prefrontal cortex, which thinks and analyzes, and the hippocampus, which makes and holds on to our immediate memories. At the bottom is the basal ganglia, nearly identical to the brains of lizards, controlling voluntary but barely conscious actions.And that's why an otherwise loving, doting, responsible, and conscientious parent may accidentally leave her child in the car all day, to die of hyperthermia. It's also why such a parent should not be charged with a crime when that happens: what's happening in your brain is no different from a day when your morning routine is interrupted, and so you forget to grab your cell phone.
[I]n situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of auxiliary autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant but efficient basal ganglia is operating the car; that's why you'll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made or the scenery you saw.
Of course, the consequences are different. But since even the risk of that unspeakable consequence can't make your brain remember to take the baby out of the car, we shouldn't waste police and judicial resources prosecuting a parent who's had this horrible thing happen to them. It's physiologically unintentional.
The most plausible explanation I've heard is that, since cars are made with front airbags now (as opposed to the olden days, when kids rode on a mattress laid over the backseat for the 13-hour drive to Grandma's), kids are supposed to be put in the back. Carseats and boosters seats, too. Worse, babies are supposed to be put facing backwards. You can't even see the top of baby's head in the rear-view mirror when you've put baby back there in the safest position possible. Think of it as a malevolent alignment of the planets when your morning routine has been interrupted, and then baby falls asleep during the ride, and you've unknowingly flipped the bit in your brain that says "baby is at daycare" to "on."
I couldn't have written about these kinds of cases just a few years ago. When this topic came up during our Crim Law class when I was a 1L, I almost had to leave the lecture hall.