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Despite Prevention Efforts, Hot-Car Casualties Are Rising

Last year was the highest on record for vehicular heatstrokes.

Hot-car deaths increased in the mid-1990s as states began mandating that car seats be placed in the back seat to avoid harm from front-seat air bags.

By Ellen Byron, The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 11, 2019 9:30 a.m. ET

Last year 51 children died of vehicular heatstroke in the U.S., an unsettling record that comes as efforts to prevent hot-car deaths have escalated. The latest tally was reached last month when the cause of death for two girls in Clay County, Mo., in July was confirmed to be vehicular heatstroke. Last year’s total surpassed the previous record of 49 deaths set in 2010, according to, a child-safety advocacy group. Heatstroke is the leading cause of non-crash vehicular deaths for children younger than 15, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Most of the deaths—an annual average of 38—are caused when children are unknowingly left in a car. Hot-car deaths increased in the mid-1990s as states began mandating that car seats be placed in the back to avoid harm from front-seat air bags. Once the car seat was installed in the back, drivers became more likely to lose awareness of children, especially if they were in the rear-facing car seats required for babies, child-safety experts say. More than 900 children have died in hot cars, says Janette Fennell, president of KidsAndCars, which has tracked just 17 hot-car deaths before 1990. The group is pushing to require car makers to install technology that will sense the presence of a child or animal. “This will not end unless we have technology and education,” she says. The record number of deaths in 2018 is particularly disheartening because many new efforts to stop hot-car deaths are now under way. Some car makers have introduced reminder systems, while new phone apps, devices, car seats and education campaigns aim to keep drivers more aware of their back-seat passengers. All of them face the same challenge: People don’t believe this could ever happen to them. “We need to have the car remind you that there’s a child in the car, whether people accept it or not,” says David Diamond, a behavioral neuroscientist and professor at the University of South Florida. “We need it for the very same reason that we need a reminder that our headlights are on.” Rising Toll The number of hot-car deaths in children reached a record high last year, even amid efforts to raise awareness and remind drivers of back-seat passengers. Source: This year, General Motors will make its rear-seat-reminder system, available on some models since 2016, a standard feature on all of its new four-door sedans, SUVs and crossovers. “It’s a tragic death that can be avoided,” says Tricia Morrow, a GM safety-strategy engineer, who notes that more accidental hot-car deaths happen toward the end of the week when drivers may be busier or more distracted. “As our lives get more complicated we need to start understanding our limitations as human beings,” she says. Nissan in 2017 made standard on its Pathfinders a rear-door alert that reminds drivers to check for occupants in the back seat, and last year it added it to additional models. The system will become standard on all four-door trucks, cars and SUVs with power locks by its 2022 model year. The system detects when the rear door is opened and closed before and while the car is on. After a trip ends, the reminder to check the back seat appears on the dashboard. If the rear door isn’t opened, the horn chirps six times. So far, Nissan has sold more than 350,000 vehicles with its rear-door alert system. Making it a standard feature—rather than an option customers had to select and pay more for—was a priority for the technology’s developers. “We didn’t want to put that pressure onto the consumer,” says Elsa Foley, a Nissan engineer who shares the patent for the technology. “It’s one less thing they have to worry about.” Even on cool days, cars can heat up quickly, rising nearly 20 degrees Fahrenheit in just 10 minutes. Because a child’s body heats up three to five times faster than an adult’s, heatstroke strikes quickly and can kill a child when his or her temperature reaches 107 degrees. “It doesn’t have to be a really hot day for these deaths to occur,” says Jan Null, adjunct professor of meteorology at San Jose State University. Last year’s first pediatric hot-car death happened in February in Miami, Mr. Null says. “That was an 81 degree day.”

Write to Ellen Byron at

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