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The federal Hot Cars Act aims to prevent deaths in sweltering vehicles. Can technology save lives?

Steven Vargas


The car hums to a stop – the engine is off. You take out the keys, strap your bag across your shoulder and walk into the office to make it to your morning meeting. As you sit at your desk, you get an unexpected text: someone is still in your car. A flashing memory of strapping your daughter into a car seat follows. You thought you took her to daycare. But a new tech device may have helped you avoid a senseless tragedy - namely, the death of a child left in a vehicle on a hot day. Rep. Tim Ryan and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, with the help of child safety advocates, are pushing to make the technology a standard in all new cars. The latest reintroduction of the Hot Cars Act went to the U.S. House of Representatives on May 12. It's been a tough battle. Years of similar proposals have been ignored or only partially supported, and all the while, deaths in hot cars have continued. The act requires new vehicles to be equipped with technology that’ll detect ifsomeone is still inside when the engine is off, alerting the driver and others near the vehicle to prevent injuries or death by heatstroke. According to data collected by, over 1,000 children have died from heatstroke in hot cars since 1990. The year 2018 had the most child hot car deaths with 54 children lost. With summer around the corner, founder and president Janette Fennell wants to keep the number of children's lives lost down. "We've been working on this [child hot car deaths] and other issues for 25 years and It's just so extremely disappointing that people don't understand how often children are killed or injured after being in a car alone," Fennell said. The technology uses sensors to detect a child or a pet. Vayyar’s 3D imaging sensor can detect movements throughout the car after the engine is off. If there is someone detected, the system will alert the registered driver via text message or phone call, sound the car alarm or, if the car is electric, activate the air conditioner. Other technologies can detect carbon dioxide, weight, vitals, temperature, and more. Today, Hyundai and Kia already have similar systems in some of their models. The problem of children dying in overheated vehicles has left tragic images throughout the nation. Among the devastating incidents:

  • A 3-month-old baby boy died in Jackson, Mississippi as a result of a simple miscommunication on the way to church.
  • A 3-year-old boy died after his father thought he dropped him off at daycare on his way to work. The father went to pick his son up at daycare where he thought he was, only to find out he forgot his child in the car that morning.
  • A 15-month-old girl died in Mason, Ohio when her mother realized she forget her in the car that morning when she got to work. After she got a call from her husband that their child was not at daycare when he went to pick her up, she realized what went wrong.
  • A 2-year-old girl died in Arizona after finding her way to the garage while everyone else in the house was asleep. She climbed into the car and accidentally locked herself in. When her father found her, it was too

Previous iterations of the proposed legislation have struggled. The Hot Cars Act of 2019 made it to the Senate and was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives as part of The Moving Forward Act, but has been at a standstill since. Fennell hopes the recent introduction will reiterate the need for such legislation and get passed independently as its own act. Ryan has been pushing the legislation for about five years. The Hot Cars Act was introduced as a stand-alone bill in 2016 by Ryan. Each time the act was introduced to the house, families of lost children shared their stories in hearings aimed at increasing public awaremenss of the problem.

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“We introduce it with a great deal of frustration from our inability to get it done over the past few congresses,” Ryan said. “But I feel that there's a real opportunity here in this Congress.” Alongside Schakowsky, they’ve allowed the families and advocates like to share the statistics, studies and stories that represent the problem that holds a simple technological solution. Cathy Chase, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the new technology is practical and cost effective. “We've had a number of demonstrations that we held on Capitol Hill to inform lawmakers that show that this technology is incredibly precise, as well as inexpensive,”Chase said. “There are all these technologies that we know can be saving lives. But yet, auto manufacturers are resistant to put them into cars for a variety of reasons, and it's to the peril of the entire motoring public.” The problem of hot car fatalities is a difficult one to measure statistically. The national Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) collects data on fatal accidents on public roads and highways. But it doesn't collect data on non-public roads and highways. filled the holes in the data by collecting statistics on child hot car deaths, trunk deaths, and cars running over children. There are an average of 39 deaths per year from heatstroke in a hot car, according to the organization's data. There were 25 deaths in 2020, significantly less than the year before. Fennell believes part of the reason is that people were in quarantine most of the year with no need to drive children to daycare or school. The percentage of hot car deaths from children climbing into vehicles went up in 2020, despite the decrease in overall deaths, Chase said. It's likely that hot car deaths will increase again, says David Diamond, a professor in the University of South Florida’s psychology department. The reason is that COVID-19 cases are going down across the nation and people are returning to their offices - as well as their previous patterns. “Everyone was out of their routine, so people weren't going to work, which increases susceptibility of leaving a child.” Diamond said. “It's unfortunate, but the prediction is that we're looking to get back at that high rate of children dying in cars as everyone gets back to normal.” He said that child hot car deaths can happen to anyone. A common misconception, he says, is that people believe it can’t happen to them because they are a good parent. “This is a property not of negligence, not a characteristic of a negligent parent, it's a failing of the brain,” he said. “I like to say as magnificent as the brain is, it can be terribly flawed.” How does a parent forget a child in the car? It happens out of habit, Diamond said. Most memory errors happen out of prospective memory. Prospective memory happens when a person intends to perform a task in the future and there is no prompt or cue to retrieve the memory of the task and perform it. In the case of a hot car death, a parent may be in the habit of going straight to work every morning while their partner drops their child off at daycare. One day, the partner that drops the child off is sick so the other parent steps in. In the process of doing so, they fall into a habit-based memory system, led by the basal ganglia structure of the brain, and go to work and lose awareness that the child is in the car. To prohibit autopilot from kicking in and make someone aware of the child in an altered routine, Diamond suggests people make a cue for themselves that there is a child in the car. He suggests keeping a stuffed animal or object in the car seat and when they go for a drive with the child, they take the object or stuffed animal to the front of the car and put it on the dashboard or passenger seat. That way, as they leave their car, the parent has a cue that reminds them a child is in the back seat. “The reason why people would feel foolish, frankly, writing a little note to themselves, maybe putting it on the steering wheel or put it on the dashboard, is because we value a child's life so much that it would minimize the child's life,” he said. Aside from stuffed animals and sticky notes, technology would create a standard for auto safety similar to various reminders that are already flashing on dashboards today. Fennell says that the reason for the Hot Car Act is to make it a part of every other warning already present in vehicles. “When you look at the fact that you can't buy a car today that either doesn’t remind you to turn off your headlights or automatically turns it off for you, why does someone decide that that's more important than the life of a child?” Fennell said.

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