Juan Rodriguez with his wife and son outside a court in August. Charged in the death of his infant twins in a hot car, he reached a plea agreement this week. Credit…James Keivom for The New York Times
By Paul Stenquist. June 25, 2020, 6:00 a.m. ET
There was reason for optimism last June. The Hot Cars Act of 2019 appeared to be making some progress. The bill would require a device that could warn drivers and car owners of a child left behind in a car or one who had gotten into a parked car.
For Janette Fennell of KidsAndCars.org, who has championed such legislation for decades, the bill was an opportunity to curb an epidemic of childhood hyperthermia deaths. Each year, dozens of children die of heatstroke in cars.
“I’m feeling much more bullish because no one is running away from us,” Ms. Fennell said when interviewed for a 2019 article. “For the first time ever, people are saying let’s get this done.”
Now, a number of pending automotive safety bills, including the Hot Cars Act of 2019, have been combined with a $500 billion highway bill and other measures in one immense $1.5 trillion bill called the Moving Forward Act. The House is expected to consider it soon.
Within weeks of the news conference at which the Hot Cars Act was introduced, the cause was underscored by two more deaths. Juan Rodriguez, a social worker in Rockland County, N.Y., left his 1-year-old twins in his car as he went to work at a Bronx hospital. Left in the hot car for eight hours, they died. Congress was apprised of the deaths, and New York’s delegation expressed strong support for legislation.
Unlike most other parents in such circumstances, Mr. Rodriguez faced criminal charges. On Wednesday, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts, and will avoid prison time. In a statement, Mr. Rodriguez’s lawyer said his client had agreed to the plea “so that he can move on with his life and get this behind him.”
Forgetting one’s child in a car is terrible to contemplate, but can be understandable when it happens under harried circumstances. An occupant-detection device could make the difference.
Last year, 52 children died in hot vehicles in the United States, just one short of the record a year earlier. Both tallies are evidence that education alone — years of telling parents to be attentive — is falling short. Automakers have, sporadically, added features, but there is no industry standard. Congress has repeatedly declined to act, and the Hot Cars Act languished for a year in the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce.
That bill prescribes a simple solution, calling for a distinct audible and visual alert that can notify those inside and outside the vehicle that someone has been left behind. A similar feature is already standard on some cars, including the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Santa Fe. The technology has proved to be effective.
Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio, introduced the bill on June 28. It was backed by 53 co-sponsors, including Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who is an ardent supporter, and Republicans like Representatives Larry Bucshon of Indiana and Peter T. King of New York.
Not long after that, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers announced a voluntary commitment to add rear-seat reminder systems to new vehicles by the 2025 model year. This was a shift in their previous position that educating parents to the dangers is enough, but short of what safety advocates and concerned legislators are demanding.
In the past, the groups — which merged this year to become the Alliance for Automotive Innovation — had resisted occupant-detection technology, saying it would miss the intended audience since few parents of young children can afford new cars.
Supporters of the bill contend that after 20 years of inaction, it is time for a law. In a news release in September, Mr. Ryan said: “I appreciate the Auto Alliance and Global Automakers for getting up to speed on the value of rear-seat technology, but this cannot be a ‘voluntary’ commitment. It should be mandated. Cars need this lifesaving technology now, not later. The lives of our children are too important to slow roll the use of available technology through 2025.”
A Senate version of the Hot Cars Act was proposed before the House bill was introduced, but it wouldn’t require rear-seat occupant detection. Instead, it would mandate only a door sequencing system that can determine if the rear door was opened before a trip. But that wouldn’t prevent deaths of children who found their way into parked cars. Ms. Fennell said three of the five children who had died in overheated cars so far this year had gotten in on their own.
Occupant-detection technology is considered superior to door sequencing. In addition to technology already in place, a number of suppliers have developed other affordable systems, some of which can even detect the sound of a baby breathing under a blanket.
Several technologies were demonstrated for Congress in 2019. Among them was the Vayyar Automotive Sensor, which can detect someone in the back seat without the use of cameras. All functionality is on the sensor, no bigger than your palm. It doesn’t require a control unit or a clear line of sight, and, according to the manufacturer, it can monitor the entire cabin, distinguishing between a baby, an adult and an object placed on a seat.
It offers other sensing abilities as well, many of which can be useful to automakers in their push to develop intelligent vehicles. For example, because an occupant sensor can detect much of what is going on in the passenger cabin, it can help optimize deployment of safety systems in a collision. In fully autonomous vehicles, it can determine when all occupants are in their seats and secure.
Ian Podkamien, director of business development for Vayyar, said, “We’re ready to produce in volume and highly engaged with several” automakers. He added that the sensor would sell for “tens of dollars.”
Vayyar isn’t the only company to have developed inexpensive occupant-detection technology. Other demonstrated systems include VitaSense from IEE Sensing; Caaresys, which uses vital-sign sensing; and Guardian, which uses an optical sensor and artificial intelligence to monitor the cabin.
Ms. Fennell is hopeful that the Moving Forward Act will come up for a vote next week in the full House, where it appears to have considerable support. Should it be passed by the House, the bill would go to a conference committee.