With two months still left in the year, 2019 is already the second worst on record when it comes to the death of children left in cars.
A handful of automakers have taken steps to address the problem, and an industry alliance says an alert system will be installed on nearly all vehicles sold in the U.S. by 2025. But safety experts contend the proposed technology can fail to work when needed.
Efforts to mandate a higher-tech approach have progressed sluggishly on Capitol Hill. Other governments have been swifter, however, in their response to rising fatalities in their own countries. Italy this week passed a law that requires all cars to include an alarm to alert parents about children in the back seat, a more effective technology that safety advocates favor.
Through the end of October, 52 American children died after being left in vehicles, a figure second only to the record 54 hot car deaths reported for all of 2018.
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“It is unconscionable that we continue to allow this to happen when it could be fixed…with technology that is already available,” said Amber Rollins, the director of the nonprofit KidsAndCars.org. Rollins told NBC News she has been advised the cost of effective detection systems would be less than $10 per car in volume production.
While there have been a handful of cases in recent years where parents or caregivers have intentionally left kids in hot vehicles, Rollins said, “Nine out of 10 times, this is happening to wonderful, well-educated parents. Most of the time it is an unintentional thing.” In today’s fast-paced environment it’s easy to simply forget to stop at daycare and then race off to work. The problem is compounded when a toddler is riding in back in a rear-facing child seat.
Currently, only a handful of automakers offer features to help parents remember when they have a child in the car. The door sequencing technology used by GM, Nissan and Subaru is activated when someone opens a back door before the vehicle is started. When the vehicle is subsequently turned off, it triggers audio and visual alerts telling the driver to check the back seat. But experts say such systems may be overlooked. And, if a driver stops on the way to work, perhaps shutting the car off while getting gas, it won’t sound the alert a second time.
So far, Hyundai and sibling brand Kia are the only ones rolling out a more advanced detection and alert system. It not only detects when a rear door is opened at the start of a drive but also uses an ultrasonic motion sensor mounted in the liner behind the back seat.
“Our experts believe that’s a notch above what other automakers are offering, based on our evaluations,” Consumer Reports said in a review of the technology in August.
Honda is planning to add its own reminder system, starting next year, but has not said how it will work.
More advanced technology using some sort of sensor to detect if a child – or even a pet - is locked in a vehicle would be mandated under the Hot Cars Act, HR 3593, now being considered by the House of Representatives. Less advanced rear door sequencing technology is written into a similar Senate bill, SB 1601. It is far from certain that Congress will be able to come up with a compromise and pass a bill this year, since similar proposals have been pushed for several years.
As for Italy, its new measure was passed by the transport ministry after a Sicilian father, whose toddler died after inadvertently being left in his car for five hours, launched a nationwide campaign. It requires automakers to install devices that emit both audio and visual signals when a child under the age of 4 is left behind. It would not only alert parents but passersby, as well.