Deona Bien was a nurse and used to seeing children in physical trouble – but not her own daughter Aslyn, who had been left for an hour in a hot car by her babysitter. By the time the 1-year-old reached the nearest hospital in Hawaii, her temperature had hit 106 degrees and, despite intensive care, she died of organ failure and brain damage three days later.
Bien told her story during a news conference in Washington, D.C. this week to help draw attention to a rare bipartisan measure being introduced in Congress aimed at helping prevent similar tragedies. The bill, dubbed the Helping Overcome Trauma for Children Alone in Rear Seats, or HOT CARS, Act, could have helped prevent many of the 800 deaths reported since 1990 involving children left in overheated vehicles.
“No child should endure the tragedy of dying while trapped in a hot vehicle. The unfortunate reality is that even good, loving and attentive parents can get distracted. Studies have shown that this can happen to anyone, anywhere. said Congressman Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat.
Co-sponsor and New York Republican Peter King stressed that it was important that the HOT CARS Act “be bipartisan, non-partisan. It should be America’s legislation.”
On average, anywhere from 30 to 60 children die annually – along with many pets – after being locked inside hot vehicles. Such cases present a serious challenge for authorities who have to decide whether the death was intentionally or accidental, and if an accident, whether it was enough of a case of negligence to still warrant prosecution. Last December, Georgia father Justin Ross Harris was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole after being accused of intentionally leaving his toddler in his vehicle.
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But Mike Harrison, who was charged with manslaughter and later acquitted, still holds himself responsible for forgetting to drop his child off at daycare and heading to work nine years ago.
“It really did not matter to me whether I was found guilty or innocent,” Harrison said during the Washington news conference.
Authorities and experts on child deaths have told TheDetroitBureau.com that it is surprisingly easy for a child to be forgotten in a situation like Harrison’s, when a parent might be late for work or an appointment – especially if that parent isn’t the one normally responsible for dropping a child off at school or daycare.
Ironically, efforts to keep kids safe may have complicated matters by encouraging parents to place child seats in the back of the vehicle to prevent injuries in a crash severe enough to trigger airbag deployment.
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The auto industry has been struggling to come up with a means to address the problem. A dozen years ago, General Motors announced plans to develop a heartbeat monitor that would detect if someone was left inside a hot vehicle. Ford promised a similarly high-tech solution, but those approaches proved unreliable and prone to failure.
Last year, GM went with a simpler system: the Rear Seat Reminder. It detects when a rear door has been opened, possibly by a parent loading a child into a car seat. When the vehicle is subsequently turned off, a warning is given to the driver to check the back seat.
The HOT CARS Act would require automakers to develop similar systems to remind parents and caregivers to check to see if a child has been left in the car.
Such a goal might seem to be in line with the consortium formed by nearly two dozen automakers in January 2016 and aimed to help bring new safety systems to market faster than would be possible through the traditional, regulatory process.
But an automotive trade group did not immediately lend its own support to the HOT CARS Act. Instead, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers would only say that it will review the legislation and “provide guidance.”
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Noting that it would take two decades before all the vehicles currently on U.S. roads are replaced, the alliance stressed that public education and awareness of the problem is the best way to “save lives today.”