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Dozens of kids die in hot cars each year. Advocates say better safety technology should be required.


Three years ago, police investigated Tyler Cestia for negligent homicide after he left his 2-and-a-half-year-old son, Thomas, in his truck at work on a hot summer day. 

"In my mind, I remember thinking, 'well, I don't remember walking in the sitter's house to drop Thomas off; I don't remember that,'" said Cestia. "I just said to myself, 'it can't be. There's no way.'"

Cestia said a confluence of circumstances created the perfect storm that June morning. He wasn't originally supposed to drop off Thomas, and the toddler sat in his brother's car seat behind the driver — out of sight. Cestia said he was also recovering from COVID, which gave him brain fog, and his mind was preoccupied with an audit at work. Six hours into his workday, he realized he never dropped off his son that morning.

"I ran out to the car to see and, unfortunately, my worst fears were realized," he said.

His wife Pamela got the call and frantically raced to the office parking lot.

"I kind of didn't know how fast children could pass in the car," Pamela said. "So, I drove like a maniac to Tyler's work and then just saw Thomas, and he was gone. I just broke down after seeing and knowing what happened."

It was a moment she had trouble processing — a moment she said she couldn't imagine ever happening to her family.

"I think before this experience, I was a little judgmental on that and thinking that how do people leave their kids in the car and forget their children," said Pamela. "I think, now, that anybody can leave their kids in the car and forget them. It can be, something else on your mind at the time, a change in routine, that it can happen to anybody."

Police ruled the death an accident.

Summer heat turns deadly

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns much of the U.S. will see above average temperatures and dangerous heat this summer. For some children, it has already become deadly.

Last month in South Carolina, a 3-year-old became the first hot car death of the year, after he crawled into the back of a vehicle and got trapped.

A few weeks later in West Virginia, a 3-month-old baby died inside a car after police said it appeared the child was inadvertently left there while the parent was at work.

According to data from advocacy group Kids and Car Safety, on average, 38 children die each year from heatstroke inside a vehicle. Over the last three decades, more than 1,000 children have died in these incidents.  

A CBS News data analysis shows 83% of all hot car deaths over the last six years happened between May and September — at least one death each week during the sweltering summer season. It's not just happening in states with the warmest temperatures. The breakdown reveals a hot car death reported in nearly every state. 

Hot car deaths through 2023

Total deaths by state of children from heat stroke in vehicles since 1990, according to Kids and Car Safety, an advocacy group that tracks incidents in every state.


 Source: CBS News analysis of data from Kids and Car Safety

"Quite frankly, we're surprised it doesn't even happen more often," said Janette Fennell, co-founder and president of Kids and Car Safety.

Fennell said after the introduction of dual front airbags, parents moved infant car seats to back seats for safety reasons. It was then, she explained, that they began to see the increasing trend of parents forgetting their children in vehicles.

Turning to technology

Over the last few years, companies have created technological advances to help reduce the chances of children being left in cars and dying. Automakers have been working on safety systems that can provide alerts to remind drivers to check for children who may still be in vehicles, or even detect a child left behind.

"We've seen a tremendous amount of innovation just in the last few years, following a commitment by automakers in 2019, to integrate these technologies into all new vehicles," said Hilary Cain, with the auto industry trade group Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

The 2021 infrastructure law included a requirement for all automakers to install an audio and visual rear seat reminder alert in all new passenger vehicles beginning with model year 2025. Most have already done this — voluntarily.

Fennell argues law and the technology don't go far enough.

"What's written in the law is sort of just the driver reminder system," she said. "We've been working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and they know that that's not really an adequate solution. In fact, we as an organization have documented deaths of six children who have died in cars that have just that reminder, so obviously it's not effective."The Cestias had that very technology in their truck when Thomas died.

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