Under a new bill in the House, the Transportation Department would require cars to come equipped with a system to alert the driver if a child is left in the back seat after the car is turned off. (iStockphoto)

More than 700 young children have died in hot cars since 1998. The news accounts of these incidents are gut-wrenching, describing helpless toddlers and infants trapped inside scorching vehicles that turn into death chambers. The parents, upon discovering their children, are devastated.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) wants to put an end to these traumas.

“Anybody who has kids looks at this as a complete tragedy that doesn’t need to happen,” Ryan said in an interview with the Capital Weather Gang. “There’s no reason we can’t have a quick fix. Every year we wait we lose more and more lives.”

On June 7, Ryan introduced the HOT CARS Act of 2017, joined by co-sponsors Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

If the bill passes, the Transportation Department would require cars to come equipped with a system for alerting the driver if a child is left in the back seat after the car is turned off.

Ryan said the technology already exists, and that General Motors has applied it in many of their 2017 and 2018 models. He said the cost of implementation of this technology would be “very, very small” for automakers.

“Consider the cost of not doing it,” Ryan said. “When you spread the cost across the industry, it’s de minimis.”

Already in 2017, 12 children across the country have lost their lives in stifling vehicles.

When it’s 90 degrees outside, the temperature inside a vehicle can surge to a suffocating 133 in just an hour, according to climatologist Jan Null, an expert on vehicle heatstroke deaths.


(noheatstroke.org)

In the majority (54 percent) of hot cars deaths, caregivers simply forget their children are in the back seat, according to a database Null maintains.

Often this forgetfulness is triggered by a change in routine, lack of sleep or some distraction, according to David Diamond, a professor of psychology at University of South Florida. Caregivers should not be blamed for what is essentially a catastrophic breakdown in their memory and thought process, he said.

“[T]hese children were not forgotten by parents that were reckless with regard to care for their children,” Diamond said at a news event announcing the bill June 7. “This phenomenon must be explained from a brain science perspective, not one that blames parents for being negligent.”

Diamond, Ryan and other advocates for the bill say technology can help overcome the lapse in mental awareness

More than 20 organizations have expressed support for the bill, led by the nonprofit groups Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and KidsAndCars.org.

“For the sake of the children and their families, we must pass this bill into law,” said Janette Fennell, KidsAndCars.org president, at the June 7 event. “Car companies must step up to protect their most vulnerable passengers. It will take technology to prevent these unthinkable tragedies.”

Null said that he supports the bill and that “every life saved is wonderful,” but that it is not a “panacea” that will instantly prevent all child heatstroke deaths. Forty-six percent of hot car deaths are not due to forgetfulness, according to Null.  They occur when caregivers purposefully leave their kids in hot cars (17 percent of the time), unaware of the risks, and when kids lock themselves inside cars while playing (28 percent of the time), and cannot escape.

Furthermore, Null notes on his website that it will take more than 15 years before the majority of the nation’s vehicle fleet possesses the technology proposed in the bill. So he expects some hot car deaths to continue and stresses the importance of educating caregivers about the problem.

On his website, Null features a set of safety recommendation for caregivers, leading with: “Parents and other caregivers need to be educated that a vehicle is not a babysitter or play area … but it can easily become tragedy. NEVER LEAVE A CHILD UNATTENDED IN A VEHICLE. NOT EVEN FOR A MINUTE!”

Ryan said he’s hopeful that he and his colleagues can get the bill pushed through the House and noted that some of the supporting organizations are working on a Senate version. If the legislation passes both houses, he thinks “it is something the administration would support.”

Additional reading

Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?

From July, 2016: 16 children have died in hot cars this year. This needs to stop.

Meteorologist bakes inside hot car for 30 minutes (VIDEO)