If there’s one benefit from the cold wave sweeping across much of the country this week, it’s the chance it will reduce the risk of children dying due to being left in hot cars. So far this year, 52 kids have died in such instances, a number that has rapidly approached last year’s record with the five deaths reported in October.
“It is unconscionable that we continue to allow this to happen when it could be fixed … with technology that is already available,” Amber Rollins, the director of the nonprofit KidsAndCars.org told TheDetroitBureau.com.
A handful of automakers have already taken steps to address the problem, with two automotive trade groups, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers, promising that virtually all vehicles sold in the U.S. will feature basic protection systems by 2025. But advocates like Rollins say the industry proposal falls well short of what’s needed and lament that what they see as a more effective solution remains bottled up in Congress.
They point out that, even with the addition of basic reminder systems on a number of vehicles sold by General Motors, Nissan and Subaru, the number of children who have died after being left in hot cars has continued to increase in recent years, hitting a record 54 last year.
There have been some high-profile cases, such as one involving Justin Ross Harris, a Georgia father convicted in December 2016, and sentenced to life without parole for purposely leaving his 22-month-old son Cooper to die in a hot vehicle. But, said Rollins, “Very few of the deaths involve intentional child endangerment, where parents willingly leave kids in a hot car.”
“Nine out of 10 times,” she added, “this is happening to wonderful, well-educated parents. Most of the time, it is an unintentional thing. With parents racing around and fatigued, they may be completely unaware they are leaving their child behind.”
One reason for the increase during the last few decades, according to experts, is that parents have been encouraged to move child safety seats from the front to the back seat. And, with toddlers typically in rear-facing restraints, it’s easy to miss a child if you’re running late for work or an appointment and have forgotten to drop them off at school, daycare or with another caregiver.
GM, Nissan and Subaru have all taken steps to give parents a nudge installing on some of their products reminder systems triggered when a back door is opened before the vehicle is started. When it’s later shut off, such systems will sound an alert and flash a warning on the instrument panel to see if something – or someone – may have been left behind.
But such technology isn’t foolproof, Rollins and other child advocates note. The warning may be disabled if, for example, a parent stops for gas or some other errand along the way and then restarts the car without again opening a back door.
A more advanced warning system, however, has been launched by Hyundai and its Korean sibling Kia. Several vehicles, including the latest-generation Santa Fe sport-utility vehicle, are equipped not only with back door monitors but also with motion sensors built into the backseat headliner. If the ultrasonic system detects motion – which could also be triggered by a pet – it will honk the horn on and off for 25 seconds. If the vehicle isn’t unlocked and the rear door then opened, it will repeat the warning. And the system also can be configured to send a text or e-mail alert.
Emily Thomas, Ph.D., Consumer Reports’ automotive safety engineer, said in an article the magazine published about the Hyundai/Kia system that it may not detect suitable movements or the breathing motions of a small child asleep in the vehicle.
Nonetheless, Thomas called it a significant improvement. “Hyundai’s two-stage warning system—which uses door logic as well as an ultrasonic motion sensor located in the ceiling behind the rear seat—is a step above what other automakers are offering, based on our evaluation,” she said.
Technology like the two Korean manufacturers have introduced would be mandated under the Hot Cars Act, HR 3593, now being considered by the House of Representatives. Less advanced rear door sequencing technology is written into a similar Senate bill, SB 1601. It is far from certain that Congress will be able to come up with a compromise and pass a bill this year, Capitol Hill observers have warned.
For its part, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a statement that it “prioritizes education because, even if reliable and accurate child heatstroke prevention technology were available and installed on every new car today, it would not address the issue for the vast majority of the driving public for many years.”
Experts like Rollins note that they have been trying to educate parents and other caregivers about the problem for years but the death toll has continued to rise.
And so, without introducing more effective – and readily available – technology into new vehicles, advocates contend, still more children will die in hot cars, even those driven by the best of parents.