Time for technology, not talk, as children continue to die in hot cars

(Shutterstock / By Africa Studio)

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — It is a tragic trend that shows no sign of slowing down: young children dying because they are accidentally left alone in sweltering vehicles.

The numbers are daunting:

In the past week, four children died in hot cars, bringing this year’s death toll to 25 including 3-year-old Oliver Dill of Evansville. Last year, 53 kids died in the United States due to heat in unattended vehicles. Dating back to 1990, the total number of fatalities now stands at more than 900, according to Kids and Cars, a safety organization that tracks non-traffic-related deaths involving children.


Vast majority of these tragedies are accidents

As police investigate the deaths, which they always do when a toddler is found dead, they find the vast majority of these tragedies are accidents. Often, a distracted or sleep-deprived parent, babysitter or relative forgot the young victim was still strapped in the back seat. In other situations, a child climbs into an unoccupied vehicle and gets trapped.

Amber Rollins (WTHR Staff)

Child safety advocates say the accidental deaths are preventable, and after years of public awareness campaigns, they are looking for action instead of talk.

“Education and awareness are simply not enough,” said Amber Rollins, director of Kids and Cars. “We’ve been educating and raising awareness for 20 years now and the numbers continue to go up. We need to do more.”

Rollins believes technology now provides the best chance of saving young lives, and she points to several automakers who are leading the effort to reverse the deadly hot car trend by developing technology to detect, remind and even alert when a child is in a back seat.

Technology can save lives

Rear Seat Reminder (General Motors)

General Motors now offers a system that monitors when a rear door has been opened, and then reminds drivers to check their rear seats before walking away from their vehicles. GM offers the Rear Seat Reminder as an available option on several Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC vehicles.

Hyundai has developed a more advanced technology that detects motion in the back seat of a parked car and sends an alert to the driver who has already left the vehicle. The company announced this week that back seat detection technology will be standard on most of its vehicles by 2022, and the more advanced Rear Occupant Alert monitor will be more widely available as a vehicle upgrade.

Kids and Cars prefers systems that will send an alert when they detect back seat motion in a locked car, rather than a simple reminder to check the backseat.

“Sensing the presence of a child is very important because about one third of hot car deaths happen when a child gets into a vehicle on their own and becomes trapped,” Rollins told WTHR. “It’s got to be able to sense those children getting in and let people know. Just a simple reminder to check the back seat is better than nothing, but it’s not enough.”

Requiring rear seat monitoring

Some lawmakers want to require all automakers to include rear seat monitoring technology as standard equipment.

Both the U.S. House and Senate are now considering separate bills to address hot car deaths. The legislation would require the Secretary of Transportation to issue a rule requiring automakers to install a child safety alert system as standard equipment on all new vehicles.

Representatives Tim Ryan (D-OH), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Peter King (R-NY) introduced H.R. 3593, titled the Hot Cars Act, to prevent heatstroke deaths in vehicles. The Senate version, S. 1601, is sponsored by Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Maria Cantwell (D-WA).

“Since 1990, more than 900 children have needlessly died in hot cars...yet technology solutions are available to remedy the problem,” Blumenthal told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation last month as he read a statement from families who’ve lost a child to a hot car fatality. “Life saving technology to prevent child deaths is available, affordable and advancing. We need a comprehensive solution that does not fall short of adequately addressing the problem.”