New Technology Could Prevent the Deaths of Children Left in Hot Cars: Report

The recent infrastructure bill includes provisions that will make back seat reminder systems standard in all new vehicles by 2025, which could avoid hot car deaths that continue to kill children every year.

Technology has existed for years that could prevent children from dying due to being accidentally left in a hot car, but automakers and regulators have resisted making it standard in all new vehicles, according to a recent investigative report published by the New York Times.

Since 1990, nearly 1,100 children have died after being left in hot cars in the United States, according to the New York Times report. Most of the incidents occurred after a parent or caregiver exited the vehicle, without remembering there is an infant in the back.

Although relatively inexpensive technology could detect the presence of an infant in the backseat and alert the driver before they exit the vehicle, automakers have typically only included it on higher end vehicles.

Technology Alerts Drivers of Children Left in Vehicle

The technology to prevent children from dying after being left in hot cars includes chimes and lights to remind parents to check the back seat when the car is off, ultrasonic sensors, and radar-based systems. The technology is not expensive, according to the report.

Chime systems, which remind the driver to check the rear seat when exiting the vehicle, has been around for several years. The systems give a series of sounds as a reminder to check the rear seat, but only if the rear door was opened and closed within 10 minutes before the vehicle was last started, or if the rear doors were opened and closed while the vehicle was running.

Certain Kia and Hyundai models use ultrasonic sensors to detect a child or pet moving in the back seat after a car is locked. But ultrasonic sensors are not sensitive enough to detect a sleeping child who is in a rear-facing car seat if they are not moving. Rear-facing car seats are considered a contributing factor to heatstroke deaths by some safety advocate groups since it keeps children out of the line of sight of the parent.

Radar-based systems detect slight movements like the rise and fall of the chest when a child breathes during sleep. The Federal Communications Commission approved a frequency for short-range radar that automakers can use. Prior to the approval, companies had to apply for waivers from the FCC to use short-range radar in this way.

Every Hot Car Child Death is Preventable 

Roughly 40 children die every year from heatstroke in cars. The children were either left in the vehicle by mistake or became trapped, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The NHTSA warns that while children left in hot cars during the summer tends to get the attention, such incidents happen every month of the year. However, in the summer heat, a child’s body temperature rises three to five times faster than an adult’s. And cars can experience a greenhouse effect, increasing interior temperature by 40 degrees within a few minutes.

Many of the deaths happen when parents drive to work and go on “autopilot.” They are often stressed and sleep-deprived and lose awareness of the child in the backseat.

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While the technology to prevent these deaths exists, safety standards are often not introduced unless there is a large consumer demand for it, the report notes, and many consumers don’t know it exists or don’t realize they need it until it’s too late.

Federal regulators plan to implement regulations requiring new vehicles to have chime systems as part of a $1 trillion infrastructure law President Biden signed in 2021, but the requirement won’t take effect until 2025.

Major automakers have already pledged to include basic backseat reminder systems in all new vehicles by the time those requirements take effect. As of October 2022, 150 models offered backseat reminder systems, but ultrasonic and radar-based systems are rare.

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