Congress is considering a bill that would make car manufacturers install a safety alert system in new cars to help drivers remember when there’s a child in the back seat.
The Hot Cars Act of 2021 passed the House of Representatives July 1. The Senate has not yet taken up the bipartisan bill, which aims to curb the unintended deaths of children left in hot cars by distracted adults.
Since 1990, that tragic mistake has claimed the lives of more than 1,000 and injured at least 1,200 others. In 2021 alone, 10 children have died in hot cars nationwide, including, most recently, a 9-year-old boy in American Fork, Utah. Nearly 90% of children who die of heat stroke in cars are under the age of 3.
In around one-quarter of cases, the child managed to get in the car on their own, so adults weren’t aware they were in the vehicle in need of help, said Janette E. Fennell, founder and president of KidsandCars.org, to the Deseret News.
However, most of the time, an adult simply gets distracted or forgets. Denial of how human it is to make this mistake stands in the way of finding solutions, Fennell said.
“It’s more complicated, but also quite simple,” she said. “All humans can make mistakes. And there’s science behind how this happens.”
To illustrate her point, Fennell noted how common it is for a person to carry their handbag, computer and a beverage to their car in the morning, set the mug on top of their car while they fumble for the keys and then drench the car when they drive off without retrieving it.
“It really does have to do with brain function. When you’re driving, it’s not that hard to go into autopilot,” she said, adding that it’s especially common when mixing sleep-deprived parents with very young children and changed routines.
A decade ago, The Washington Post ran an oft-cited story, “Fatal Distraction,” that explored what kind of adults forget they have a baby with them and leave them in a vehicle:
“The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist,” wrote Gene Weingarten.
No matter who makes the mistake, it can quickly become deadly.
As the Deseret News has reported, it doesn’t take long for cars to become ovens. And temperatures don’t have to be high for that to occur. The interior of cars can swelter dangerously on cool days, too.
Several years ago, West Valley police demonstrated how fast it can happen. On a 100-degree day, it took just 13 minutes for the interior of a car parked in the sun to reach 130 degrees.
Still, temperature-related deaths in cars were uncommon until the 1990s, when concerns about injuries from passenger-side air bags led parents to begin placing children in special car seats or boosters in the back seat for safety.
Today, during the summer months, Fennell’s organizations says a child dies after being accidentally left in a hot car about every nine days.
The Hot Cars Act of 2021, which has both Democrat and Republican sponsors, would protect any vulnerable living creature left behind in a car, including children, pets and disabled or elderly adults who couldn’t rescue themselves.
The bill requires the secretary of transportation to issue a rule requiring all new passenger vehicles to come equipped with a system “that detects the presence of an unattended occupant in the passenger compartment” and engages a warning. Such a warning system could not be disabled. And it would have to include both a “distinct auditory and visual warning” to notify those inside and outside the vehicle that someone’s being left inside.
The bill also recommends considering a secondary warning that would provide the vehicle’s location to emergency responders. And it calls for an independent study of tools already on the market, with an eye to reporting which are most effective.
A number of tools do exist for concerned parents. For example, Fennell’s organization notes that Hyundai and Kia have both created rear occupant alerts for certain vehicle models to remind the driver to check the back seat when they turn the car off if the backdoor was opened prior to the drive. Notification can include a sensor that honks and flashes the lights if motion is detected in the back seat for up to 24 hours after the car is turned off.
Drivers of older cars can add tools like Clever Elly, which reminds them to check the back seat when exiting the vehicle.
CoPilot can be attached to an infant car seat strap and sends a signal to an alarm that attaches to car keys. When the child is buckled in, the special seat belt clip is also used. If the driver doesn’t unbuckle that clip when he leaves, the alarm is sent.
Door sequencing technology is the most common vehicle offering from manufacturers. It’s based on whether you open the backdoor prior to starting the car. But if you stop the car to pump gas, for example, you’d have to remember to open the backdoor before driving on in order for the system to alert you at your destination.
Fennell warns sequencing technologies do nothing when a child has entered the car on her own and they may give people a false sense of security.
Even with tech, careful habits are invaluable. Experts say drivers can protect children — their own and others’ — by always checking the car, locking up and being especially attentive if you have to drive a different route, have been distracted or face a change in routine.
Simple Safety Steps
KidsandCars.org has launched a “Look Before You Lock” campaign that tells adults to look in their back seat every time before they lock the car. That applies whether you have children or not, since littles can climb into a neighbor’s car, grandpa’s car or even a stranger’s if it’s left unlocked.
The habit helps people remember to take other things they need with them, too, including lunch, a computer or whatever important item they might find, Fennell said.
Here are other tips that child safety experts recommend keeping in mind:
- Parents can use something as simple as a lanyard, like those handed out as part of a 2018 safety campaign by Primary Children’s Hospital, to remind them they have the baby with them. When baby’s not in the car seat, the lanyard is.
- Parents should always let a care provider know if a child isn’t coming. Then, if children are not dropped off on days they’re expected, the care provider can routinely and promptly check that a child is not forgotten. “If people do that, it’s pretty rare a child will be left in a car,” Fennell said.
- Parents with young children should leave something in the child car seat, like a stuffed animal, that can be transferred to the front seat when baby takes its place. That provides a visual reminder to parents that the baby is on board.
- Parents can try leaving one of their shoes in the back with the baby. No one walks into work without noticing they’re wearing one shoe.
- Keep car doors locked whenever the vehicle is parked to prevent curious children from climbing inside.
- If a child goes missing, check bodies of water nearby, but also check nearby cars — including trunks.