Jennifer Hilton is a loving mother who would never put a child in danger. Until the day she did.
On Oct. 6, 2010, Hilton forgot to drop her son Chris at day care — a job her husband usually did — and instead left the toddler in the car when she went to work in south suburban Crestwood. Luckily, Chris was found before he died of heatstroke.
Hilton, who has moved out of state, said she now knows this could happen to anyone. She volunteers to speak on the issue through KidsAndCars.org, a Kansas-based safety advocacy group.
“You mix exhaustion with a change of routine and stress and you’re waiting for a bomb to explode,” said Hilton, 41.
Despite two decades of public education about the dangers of leaving children in cars, the number of vehicular heatstroke deaths of children in the U.S. has remained about the same — an average of 37 each year since 1998. So safety advocates are now backing federal legislation that would mandate a technological solution, requiring new cars to be equipped with a visual and audio alarm system to alert caregivers if a child is left behind.
“Education is good, but it’s not the ultimate solution. That’s why we need technology,” said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based group.
“My car reminds me when I get out of the car and the keys are in there — how can we not remind the driver to check the backseat?” said Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, co-sponsor of the legislation in the U.S. House. The proposal is part of a bill about autonomous vehicles. Companion legislation also was introduced in the U.S. Senate.
If the proposal passes, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would have two years to come up with rules to mandate what the technology must do, and then automakers would have another two years to put it in all new vehicles. Similar legislation requires new cars to have “back-up” cameras that help prevent drivers from hitting children behind their car; those regulations kick in next year.
The proposed heatstroke legislation does not prescribe a particular type of technology but sets out a performance standard, which allows for different answers, Gillan said. General Motors has technology that alerts a driver if he or she opens a rear door at the start of a trip, but then doesn’t open it again at the end of it. Another device can detect a baby’s breath in the back, Gillan said. A driver could be alerted repeatedly through iPhone messages that a child was left behind.
More than 800 children have died of vehicular heatstroke deaths since 1990, including at least 20 in Illinois, according to KidsAndCars.org. Texas and Florida, both populous hot-weather states, saw the most fatalities between 1990 and 2016, with 113 and 82, respectively.
More than half of the children were unknowingly left in the car (55 percent), 28 percent climbed in on their own and another 13 percent were knowingly left, according to KidsAndCars.org. Of all fatalities, 87 percent were children ages 3 or younger.
So far this year, 30 children have died, an increase from 25 from this time last year. Amber Andreasen, director of KidsandCars.org, said that increasing temperatures resulting from climate change could play a role. “The warmer it is, the faster a child can succumb to heatstroke,” she said.
Car interiors heat up quickly in the sunshine. Even if the windows are cracked open, the temperature can reach 125 degrees in minutes, according to KidsAndCars.org.
A child’s body overheats three to five times faster than an adult body. If a child’s body temperature reaches 107 degrees, the child will die, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Children can die even when the outside temperature is 60 degrees. Pets left in cars also are at risk.
The number of children who have died of heatstroke in vehicles has been consistent since the late 1990s, when there was a movement nationwide to require children to be in the backseat to prevent them from being killed by overpowered airbags, Andreasen said.
“One of the unintended consequences of that safety move is that children are out of sight of the driver,” Andreasen said. In 1992, four children died in hot cars — last year it was 39, while the number of children killed by airbags dropped from more than 30 in 1998 to zero in the last few years, according to KidsAndCars.org.
Why would a loving parent leave a child in a car? A change in daily routine, lack of sleep, stress, hormone changes, fatigue and distractions are things all parents experience and can be factors, according to KidsandCars.org.
It can happen when people are multitasking, get out of their usual routine and go into “autopilot,” said David Diamond, a professor in the department of psychology, molecular pharmacology and physiology at the University of South Florida, who has studied the problem. The same kind of mental lapse can cause a police officer to leave a loaded gun on the toilet paper holder in a public bathroom.
“The common factor is not just stress, but the parent is on a drive that typically does not include the child, so the brain goes into autopilot mode that takes the parent from point a to point b, and the day care is not along that route,” said Diamond, who has interviewed parents of children who died of vehicular heatstroke. “The parent is driving, the mind is wandering to plans for the day, and the awareness of the child is lost.”
Diamond said parents’ brains can fill in the memory of dropping children off with caregivers and really believe it happened. They talk about their children at work, have pictures of their children on their desks and even tell co-workers that they have to leave early to go to the day care.
“Then they come out and find their child dead,” said Diamond. Besides the trauma of losing their child, these parents have to suffer from the judgment from others, Diamond said. He said technology is “absolutely” the answer to the problem.
Hilton said when she got back to her car, it was surrounded by emergency vehicles. When police told her she was under arrest for leaving her son in the car, “I looked right at them and said ‘My son’s in day care.” When Hilton learned what had happened, she began to scream.
Though Schakowsky said the heatstroke legislation has bipartisan support and that she is “optimistic” it will pass, it could be several years before new cars are required to have alerts to notify parents that a child is left behind.
For now, safety advocates recommend the following procedures:
• Look before you lock — always check the back seat before you lock the car and walk away.
• Keep a stuffed animal or other memento in your child’s car seat when it’s empty, and move it to the front seat as a reminder when your child is in the back. Or place your phone, briefcase, or purse in the back when traveling with your child.
• If someone else is driving your child, or your routine has been altered, always check to make sure your child has arrived safely. Set a reminder on your phone to call.
• Keep your vehicle locked and keys out of reach — nearly three in 10 heatstroke deaths happen when an unattended child climbs into a car.
• If you see a child alone in a vehicle, call law enforcement immediately and free the child. Illinois has no “Good Samaritan” law to protect from civil or criminal liability people who break into cars to save children but are not trained as first responders, said secretary of state spokesman Dave Druker.
But you should help anyway.