In a matter of hours, Laura Beck’s life changed forever.
In June, she lost her son and husband in a manner that almost defies understanding.
Her son, Anderson, died of heatstroke after being left in a vehicle, and her husband, Aaron, took his own life in response. Aaron didn’t realize until getting a frantic call from his wife wondering where their son was that he’d left the 18-month-old boy in his vehicle instead of dropping him at day care.
The laughing and singing that the Beck family had experienced that morning over breakfast and the precious times they’d shared before, “all of it stopped,” said Beck, who lives in Richmond, Virginia.
“There’s such a stigma behind these types of tragedies. … It does happen, it happens to amazing parents,” she said, describing her husband’s infectious laugh and the wonder they had both shared at creating such a “beautiful, tiny human.”
Beck told her story for the first time publicly this week, struggling with the tears and emotions of profound loss, to call for action by federal regulators to address the tragedy of hot car deaths. More than 1,054 children have died in hot vehicles since 1990, according to the national advocacy group Kidsandcars.org. The group has recorded two deaths involving 2-year-olds left in vehicles already this year, one in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and the other in Atmore, Alabama.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, who is among those pushing for more action, noted the urgency of the moment as warmer weather returns across the country, with spring turning to summer in the coming weeks.
“Soon, cars will become death traps if kids are left inside them,” he said this week during an event to raise awareness of the dangers of child hot car deaths and to push for action.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, passed in 2021, requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to finalize a rule by this November mandating new vehicles be equipped with a system to alert drivers to check rear-designated seats for children when the engine is shut off.
Safety advocates worry that the department will miss its deadline, but beyond that, they say better solutions, in the form of technology that can detect the presence of a child left in a rear-facing car seat and alert the driver rather than just act as a reminder to check the area, are available today.
“As a country, we are failing our children each and every day because this effective equipment is not included in our vehicles,” said Janette Fennell, president of Kidsandcars.org. “There are families out there right now with beautiful children who will lose them by the end of the summer due to a preventable hot car tragedy.”
Cost is one of the issues often mentioned in rolling out new safety technology, but the advocates said that as more vehicles are equipped with new technology, it will mean a decrease in the cost for each vehicle equipped in the future, although they described it as affordable now. Fennel said the cost currently is about $50 for rear-seat detection.
The auto industry has maintained that it wants to address the issue of hot car deaths.
Twenty-one automakers, including then-Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (now Stellantis), Ford and General Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen, made voluntary commitments in 2019 to implement rear seat reminder systems by the 2025 model year.
The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an industry group representing about 40 automakers and suppliers, released a report last year, touting progress in reaching the goals of that commitment. A news release on the report said that more than 150 vehicle models now have a rear seat reminder system as standard or optional equipment. The equipment can include either an end-of-trip reminder or occupant sensing.
“We know rear seat reminder technology can help save lives by alerting parents or caregivers when a child is left in the rear seat of a vehicle. This data indicates major progress toward our goal of universal rear seat reminder systems by 2025 — progress that has accelerated since our voluntary commitment to introduce the technology on all vehicles just three years ago,” according to a statement from John Bozzella, president and CEO of the alliance.
While those efforts were noted in the online event this week, safety advocates say they fall short of what’s needed.
Another parent who spoke during the event, Pamela Cestia, of New Iberia, Louisiana, described how a rear seat reminder alert system in her family’s truck wasn’t enough to prevent the death of her son, Thomas, in a hot vehicle in 2021. In fact, the boy’s father drove the truck three times without realizing the boy was in the back seat, she said, describing the system as offering a false sense of security.
Safety experts suggest leaving an object like a purse or other needed item in the back seat as a way to prompt the driver to check there before leaving the vehicle. But they also say that even normally attentive parents are among those whose children die in hot cars and that a failure of memory makes little sense to criminalize, although it’s not uncommon to see parents face charges in such cases.
“We need legislation that will take the additional step for detecting a child in the back seat,” Blumenthal said. “A simple sensor can save lives.”
The auto industry has also come in for criticism about its voluntary commitments. Joan Claybrook, a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official, said in 2019 that the industry’s effort was an attempt to avoid an enforceable standard. She also highlighted what is considered an unintended consequence of a separate safety effort.
Automakers “should have added detection systems to their vehicles decades ago when auto manufacturers told all parents to move their children to the back seat due to the decision of some automakers to install overpowered air bags,” Claybrook said at the time.
Heatstroke can occur if the core body temperature rises to 104 degrees or higher (107 is considered potentially lethal), and a child’s body heats up three to five times faster than an adult’s, experts say.
Living in a northern state like Michigan, however, is no defense against heatstroke.
“An outside temperature in the mid-60s can cause a vehicle’s inside temperature to rise above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The inside temperature of your car can rise almost 20 degrees Fahrenheit within the first 10 minutes,” according to information posted on the NHTSA website.
Veronica Morales, a spokeswoman for NHTSA, said “the agency has initiated work to meet the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s requirement for rulemaking on pediatric vehicular heatstroke prevention. NHTSA generally does not comment on rulemakings in progress.”
Contact Eric D. Lawrence: firstname.lastname@example.org. Become a subscriber.