Mandatory warning systems to keep drivers from stranding children in the backseat are buried in massive infrastructure bills. But one version offers a weak solution, said advocates — among them a father who lost his twins in a Bronx tragedy.
In April 2001, General Motors announced it would install “pioneering new technology” within three years to prevent children from dying after being left in the backseat of parked cars that overheat.
The car manufacturer never followed through. Now, more than two decades later, two versions of proposed legislation attached to the Biden administration’s massive infrastructure plan may finally force the automotive industry to add some kind of lifesaving warning system.
But activists and grieving parents — including a father whose twins died in a hot car in The Bronx two years ago — are concerned that the U.S. Senate version calling for a simple beep and message on the dashboard does little to solve the problem.
They contend drivers will simply ignore the beeps if warnings are not tied to more sophisticated, attention-grabbing systems that can “detect life,” as the House of Representatives bill requires.
“That’s what will make a real difference,” said Juan Rodriguez, whose twin 1-year-olds, Luna and Phoenix, died trapped in a Honda sedan he’d parked in Fordham on a hot late July day in 2019.
He’d forgotten to drop the twins off at daycare before going to work at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center. Rodriguez avoided prison by pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment. Many prosecutors have decided against charging caregivers in similar cases, citing research that shows they did not intend to leave the child inside.
Luna and Phoenix joined a grim list of similar tragedies: More than 1,000 children have died strapped into car seats or stuck some other way in the back of hot cars since 1990, according to KidsandCars.org, a group that tracks the number of cases and advocates for detection and alert mandates.
“Without a doubt, something needs to be done,” said Robert Sinclair Jr., a spokesperson for American Automobile Association, which issues perennial warnings about the dangers of leaving young kids alone in cars.
A Troubling Phenomenon
Experts say parents leaving youngsters in cars often has nothing to do with negligence or foul play.
Rather it is the result of “converging circumstances triggering the habit-based portion of the brain to overcome the thought-based portion of the brain,” David Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of South Florida and expert on the phenomenon, told a prosecutor investigating another hot car death.
The pattern was highlighted in a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post report in 2009 that detailed similarities among multiple accidental hot-car death cases.
But most car makers and child seat manufacturers have balked at installing notification systems.
Supporters of detection systems say they could cost as little as $10 to put in cars — a fee that could easily be passed onto buyers.
Proposed federal legislation to force manufacturers to employ the warning systems has stalled for years, with one bill dating to 2008.
In the intervening years, car manufacturers have installed notifications for people who accidentally leave their headlights on or car keys in the ignition or trunk.
And in September 2019, a group of car manufacturers announced plans to voluntarily add systems to all new cars by 2025 that notify drivers to look at the back seats after cars are turned off.
But safety advocates say that the announcement by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers falls short because drivers typically ignore those warnings — suggesting something more tailored like a weight detection system is needed.
“You could get tone deaf,” said AAA’s Sinclair. “They just go off all the time.”
A Grieving Mother’s Plea
Now, the U.S. Senate is proposing a similar idea — which safety advocates describe as “watered down” — that would apply to all new cars within two years.
The competing House and Senate bills have confused lawmakers and people who have followed the issue, said Amber Rollins, director of Kids and Car Safety.
“We are really trying to clear the air and make sure people understand we need [detection systems],” she said, noting GM didn’t keep its promise to install the systems in all its vehicles by 2004.
In 2019, GM introduced Rear Seat Reminder to ping drivers to check the back seat as they exit their vehicles. The system is now standard on all of its new 4-door sedans, SUVs, pick-ups and crossovers in the United States and Canada, according to Jeannine Ginivan, a GM spokesperson.
“GM is committed to safety,” she said.
Still, safety advocates contend those kinds of notification systems fall short.
“The auto industry has a long history of this,” Rollins said. “Children’s lives are just too precious to put in the hands of those who have failed to follow through and make a difference.”
Rollins and others who have pressed for federal oversight are pushing for the House’s version of legislation sponsored by Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois).
More locally, Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Long Island, Queens) is a co-sponsor of the bill.
“A grieving mother, who lost her children in a hot car, asked me to help. I pledged I would,” Suozzi said in a statement, referring to Marissa Quattrone-Rodriguez, Luna and Phoenix’ mother.
An ‘Escalation Alert System’
Under the proposed House legislation, vehicle manufacturers would be required to install technology that would detect if a person or pet were in the back seat when the engine is off.
The alerts could progress from an automatic honking horn or lights flashing or windows opening. If that doesn’t work, an alert could be sent to police, using the vehicle’s GPS coordinates.
“We want it to be an escalating alert system so that the police aren’t being called every time somebody steps away from their vehicle,” Rollins said.
Some car seat makers have installed notification systems, but advocates say that’s not enough.
“That wouldn’t be a comprehensive solution,” Rollins said, noting some children who die in hot cars are not strapped into car seats.
The competing bills in Washington are caught up in the larger fight over how the infrastructure effort moves forward.
“We really don’t have a clear picture right now of what is going to happen, which is very frustrating,” Rollins said.
If the Senate’s version passes, local lawmakers may attempt to legislate tougher restrictions.
In 2019, then-New York State Sen. David Carlucci championed the Heatstroke Elimination Awareness Technology (HEAT) Act, which would require cars in the state to have detection systems installed. The intent was to force automakers to make the change on a national level similar to how California lawmakers have set nationwide emissions standards.
“Unless they’re required to make these safety features, they don’t do them,” said Carlucci, who noted the requirement is already in place in Europe.
But the bill stalled in Albany in part because of the pending federal legislation — and Carlucci did not seek re-election and launched an unsuccessful run for Congress. No one in the State Legislature appears to have picked up the measure since.
Carlucci, who represented Rockland County, where the Rodriguez family resides, was inspired to act by their case.
“This is not some scientific theory,” he said. “This is being done in other places.”
Protecting ‘the Most Precious’
The Rodriguez family is advocating for the House legislation to prevent any further tragedies.
In June 2020, Juan Rodriguez, who was initially charged with manslaughter in the deaths, pled guilty to the two misdemeanor charges with no jail time.
The Rodriguezes, who have a 6-year-old son and welcomed a daughter 14 months ago, have taken solace in pushing for change. They’ve written letters to Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, both New York Democrats.
They haven’t heard back.
“It’s probably just because they get tons of letters,” Juan Rodriguez said.
The couple brings Luna and Phoenix’s photos and shoes wherever they go.
“This is something that no family should ever go through,” Rodriguez added. “Why can’t we have a mechanism to protect the most precious to us?”