Two summers ago, 2-year-old Leasia Carter of Belair-Edison died in the backseat of a Lincoln because her dad, who had been drinking on a Father’s Day celebration, had forgotten she was there. In February of this year, that man was sentenced to eight years in prison for what he confessed to be a “horrible mistake.” But what if he had been given a second chance? What if he’d gotten a reminder to check the back seat after he drove home? Surely, that would have increased the likelihood that his daughter would have survived that fateful day.
Earlier this summer, a bipartisan coalition in the House and Senate introduced legislation requiring new vehicles to eventually be fitted with technology that could make it much more difficult for drivers to unknowingly leave children (or pets) in the backseat. It’s a concept worthy of broad support. Since 1990, there have been more than 800 heatstroke deaths of young children in cars, according to safety advocates. In Maryland alone, there have been 14, including Leasia’s death in 2015. What if in all those cases, the drivers had been reminded to check their backseats? How many children would still be alive? Dozens? Hundreds? Surely, it’s not too much for the U.S. Department of Transportation to require some version of “reminder” technology.
What makes the approach especially compelling is that at least one major automaker is already moving in that direction. Last year, General Motors introduced in certain of its 2017 models an integrated “Rear Seat Reminder,” and it’s putting the system in more of its 2018 cars and SUVs. Here’s how it works: The vehicle takes note if any of its rear doors have been opened and closed (either after it was started or up to 10 minutes before), then when the vehicle is turned off, five chimes sound and a message flashes on the dashboard display, “Rear Seat Reminder/Look in Rear Seat.” It’s a pretty simple and low-cost technology, and Consumer Reports has concluded it’s effective and has thrown its support behind the proposal now pending before Congress.
While the Trump administration has generally taken an anti-regulatory view, the obvious alternative — allowing car makers simply to offer rear seat reminders as an option — is unlikely to prove effective. Few, if any, parents believe themselves capable of leaving a young child alone in a hot car. There’s simply not going to be a rush by consumers to seek out this particular safety feature. Like seat belts, air bags and other helpful safety technology, it’s far better for the federal government to ultimately mandate its installation and use. The cost is likely to be modest, but the benefits, potentially hundreds of lives saved, is enormous — if not necessarily obvious to adults who would never dream of leaving a child unattended.
Is GM’s approach the best? That’s worthy of further study. Another promising technology under development would detect breathing inside a car after a driver has exited. The bill introduced by Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Al Franken of Minnesota, Helping Overcome Trauma for Children Alone in Rear Seats Act (the HOT CARS Act of 2017) gives the federal government two years to further study the issue and set the standards with help from the auto industry. That kind of cooperative approach is how the federal regulatory process is supposed to work. And it’s one of the reasons the legislation has already gotten broad support from such organizations as the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Doctors, fire fighters and police officers have seen the consequences of behavior that is frequently more mistake than manslaughter by an adult who is distracted or sleep-deprived.
It’s one thing for people to be reckless about a child’s welfare — those who deliberately leave kids in casino parking lots fit that definition, and states like Maryland have made it a crime to leave a child under 8 alone in a locked vehicle. But it’s quite another for a caregiver to simply forget. People would like to think that could never happen to them. The grim statistics show that it can. Public education and prosecutions are helpful, but they simply aren’t enough to save the dozens of children who are killed each year by heatstroke because they were left alone in a hot car.
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