Late last month, at a news conference in Washington, Miles Harrison tearfully related how he had caused the death of his son, Chase, in 2008.
He was there to promote the Hot Cars Act of 2019, but he had told this story many times before: to the court that tried him for manslaughter, and to Gene Weingarten for a Pulitzer-winning article in The Washington Post in 2009 that helped alert the world to how children can overheat and die in vehicles.
Yet even as Mr. Harrison was speaking, an infant girl was dying in a van in Florida. She was the eighth child to die in a hot car this year.
As the summer months heat up across America, advocates are hoping to draw attention to the issue itself as well as their push for legislation to help address the problem. Dozens of children die of heatstroke each year in cars whose temperatures, even on relatively mild days, can quickly soar past 100 degrees. Many of those children were left behind by a distracted caregiver.
Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsAndCars.org, has been campaigning for a warning device to alert a driver to the presence of a child in the back seat for two decades. In 2003, she championed the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act, which legislated protections including power window improvements, better rear vision, safeguards that prevent setting a car in motion and rear-seat occupancy sensors. That last requirement was struck before a final version of the bill was passed in 2008.
KidsAndCars.org, along with other child safety advocates, again asked Congress to act two years ago, with bills introduced in the House and the Senate. Both bills were later combined with autonomous vehicle legislation, which failed in the Senate.
Some who have opposed occupancy-sensor regulation — including the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a lobbying group for 12 major carmakers — have long said that education is enough, and that if parents are reminded of the warm-weather dangers of a parked automobile, the problem will solve itself.
Safety advocates have tried to educate caregivers through appearances on television shows, advertising campaigns, literature and more. Some efforts have included tips, such as putting one’s briefcase or purse next to the child, in hopes of helping caregivers remember the child in back.
But the problem has not been solved. In 2010, 49 children died when they were left behind or inadvertently trapped in a parked car, a peak at the time. In 2018, 52 such deaths were recorded, according to data compiled by KidsAndCars.org.
“Education of caregivers is at an all-time high,” Ms. Fennell said, “so deaths shouldn’t be at an all-time high.”
Ms. Fennell has again asked Congress to act, with the Hot Cars Act of 2019. In addressing the House’s Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee on May 23 about the bill, she said, “Once and for all we must reach an agreement that education alone will not and cannot put an end to these needless tragedies.”
The House bill, which is due to be introduced this month, is expected to require an audible warning if someone is in the back seat after the engine is turned off. Such technology is already standard on the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Santa Fe, providing an alert if ultrasonic sensors detect child or pet movement in the second and third row.
A Senate version of the bill was introduced on May 22, but it wouldn’t require an occupancy sensor. A warning system that alerts the driver if the rear door was opened before beginning a trip, for example, would most likely satisfy the requirements of the Senate bill. Unlike the Kia and Hyundai technology, these systems cannot detect the presence of a person or pet in the back seat.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is again calling only for more public awareness. The organization posted this statement regarding the new Hot Cars Act on its website:
“The loss of any life is tragic, and greater public awareness and vigilance are absolutely crucial to help save young lives, right now, this week. The alliance will carefully review any legislative proposals keeping in mind that fewer than 13 percent of new car buyers have a child 6 years old or younger. And with people keeping cars longer, it takes about two decades for a technology to reach all the passenger vehicles on our roads. Greater public awareness saves lives today.”
While Ms. Fennell has pushed for change over the past two decades, she remains optimistic. “I’m feeling much more bullish, because no one is running away from us,” she said. “For the first time ever, people are saying let’s get this done.”