All new cars have seat belt reminders and tire pressure warning systems, but why don't they have a feature that prompts you to check the backseat for a child? That type of device is what lawmakers, families and safety advocates are demanding in Washington to prevent in-car heatstroke deaths.
Today, parents and caregivers who unknowingly left children in hot cars joined members of Congress and safety advocates to announce the Helping Overcome Trauma for Children Alone in Rear Seats (HOT CARS) Act of 2017. The bipartisan bill requires cars to be equipped with technology that alerts drivers when a passenger remains in the backseat after a car is turned off.
Some 709 children have died of in-car heatstroke since 1998, according to data from researchers at the San Jose State University Department of Meteorology & Climate Science who manage the website NoHeatstroke.org. Safety advocacy group KidsandCars.org says a child's body overheats three to five times faster than an adult's, and heatstroke occurs when the body's temperature exceeds 104 degrees and the body's organs begin to shut down; death usually occurs at 107 degrees. Most of these deaths are an accident, and the common theme among them is that caregivers are distracted by a change in routine and tired. The resulting forgetfulness is deadly.
Sponsoring the bill are U.S. Representatives Tim Ryan, D-Ohio; Peter King, R-N.Y.; and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. It would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set regulations for automakers and for automakers to develop and implement the technology.
This type of system already exists, and one automaker is rolling it out across its lineup. GM's Rear Sear Reminder system alerts the driver with both audible chimes and a message on the instrument panel to check the backseat after the vehicle is turned off. It's currently on more than 20 Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC models. Amber Andreasen, Director of KidsAndCars.org, said she believes the system is a step in the right direction but that there are some issues with it.
"The system is a software solution that is activated simply by the back door being opened prior to travel," she said. "Where we see the issue is that the system does not actually sense the presence of a child. If you stop at the gas station on your way to work, for example, and do not open the back door again while you are stopped, the reminder alert will not go off once you reach your final destination." The ideal system would be one that can actually sense the presence of a child, she added.
Similar legislation was proposed late last year, and Janette Fennell, Founder and President of KidsAndCars.org said that with the change in the administration, they needed to start over with a new bill. Legislation similarly rooted in child tragedies has been passed before, but it was a long road to success. In 2008, Congress signed a law inspired by another critical child safety problem, mandating backup cameras in new vehicles. It was inspired by a doctor who accidentally ran over his son and killed him; after numerous delays, the mandate takes effect next year.
Until change can be effected on the government level, there's much that can be done in terms of individual vigilance. KidsAndCars.org's education campaign encourages caregivers to "Look Before You Lock" your car, and NHTSA encourages drivers to heighten their awareness by placing their backpack, purse or briefcase in the backseat, forcing them to check that area before they leave the vehicle.
Community involvement is also essential. If you encounter someone suffering from heatstroke, call 911 immediately. If you see a child who is sick or looks hot and is alone in a vehicle, get involved. Many states have good Samaritan laws that protect citizens acting in good faith to protect someone's life, according to Safe Kids Worldwide.