800 Kids Have Died In Hot Cars: Why Aren’t Alert Systems Standard?

Since 1990, more than 800 children have died from heatstroke in hot cars, including nine children so far just this year. But despite the severity of this problem, technology that’s already available that can remind parents when their child is still in the back seat is not yet standard for all cars. Lawmakers, safety advocates, and parents who have experienced tragic losses want this to change.

With the arrival of warmer weather comes greater risk that kids could suffer from heatstroke and die if they’re stuck in a car, but it can happen on milder days as well: Children have died from heatstroke in cars with temperatures as low as 60 degrees, according to KidsAndCars.org.

And even with the windows cracked, the temperature inside a car can reach 125 degrees in minutes, with 80% of the increase in temperature happening in the first 10 minutes.

With an average of 37 children dying per year from heatstroke after being left behind in cars it’s a serious issue that has garnered national attention, including a 2010 Pulitzer-prize winning story by The Washington Post about the tragic story of a father who was charged with involuntary manslaughter — and ultimately acquitted — after he accidentally left his son in a hot car.

In an effort to prevent this from happening, three lawmakers are reintroducing legislation that would require cars to be equipped with existing technology to alert drivers that a passenger remains in the back seat when a vehicle is turned off.

Representatives Tim Ryan (OH), Peter King (NY) and Jan Schakowsky (IL) introduced the Helping Overcome Trauma for Children Alone in Rear Seats (HOT CARS) Act of 2017 [PDF] to ensure that an alert system is standard equipment in cars.

There’s already technology available that some automakers have introduced aimed at keeping kids from being stuck in overheating cars: In June 2016, GM debuted a new rear seat reminder feature that sounds a warning tone and alerts drivers to “Look In Rear Seat,” with a message flashing in the center of the vehicle’s speedometer.

It’s this kind of technology that should be standard in all vehicles, advocates and lawmakers said in introducing the bill today at a press conference, with many pointing out cars today have alerts for just about everything else, from warnings about unbelted seatbelts to alarms for doors that have been left open.

“There is absolutely no reason why we can’t have the technology available in cars today that will allow a parent who’s hustling around, stressed out, running from here to there, to get a bell, or a ding, or a vibration, something auditory, something that’s visual, that will allow you to recognize you may have a kid in your car,” said Rep. Ryan. “There’s no reason we can’t do that.”

Dr. David Diamond, the director of the Neuroscience Collaborative Program and Center for Preclinical and Clinical Research on PTSD at the University of South Florida, noted that competing brain functions can cause a parent to lose awareness that their child is in the car.

“These are not bad parents, these are not negligent parents,” he said. “These are flaws in the brain.”

Deona Ryan Bien, the mother of Aslyn, a one-year-old girl who died in 2004 after her babysitter inadvertently left her in the car on an 82-degree day, detailed the changes in her family’s daily routine that led to her daughter’s death: She had started a new job that day working more days per week, so her daughter would be at the babysitter more.

Her sitter was also driving a different car, and Aslyn was seated directly behind her, out of the line of sight.

“These similar events have happened to many people every day,” Bein said, adding that though education is important to make people aware of how this can happen, it’s “just a layer.”

“And unfortunately, it is a layer that people feel that they do not need to know,” she said. “I had felt the same way, but it does happen, it did happen to hundreds of other parents, good, loving parents and grandparents.”

Other parents spoke about their heartbreak as well, often through tears, to emphasize the need for alert technology to be required in all vehicles and urge Congress to pass this bill.

“Every time we hear of another child dying, we relive that horrible day with him over and over again and we ask why — why is this happening when there’s technology available?” said Miles Harrison, the subject of WaPo’s 2010 story, whose 21-month old son died in 2008.

Our colleagues at Consumer Reports and Consumers Union also believe these kinds of tragedies could be prevented with auditory and visual alert systems.

“No parent can fathom the idea that they could leave a child behind in a hot car so they’re less likely to take precautions to avoid it,” Jennifer Stockburger, Director of Operations Consumer Reports Auto Test Center. “That’s why some type of integrated warning is critical to help prevent these types of tragedies”

“Most people can’t imagine leaving their kids in the back seat, but it does happen, and now there are simple, effective features coming out to prevent these tragedies. We think they should be standard in all new cars. That’s why we strongly support the HOT CARS Act and will be pushing Congress to pass it,” says William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports.