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Preventing Children From Dying In Hot Cars: Good Or Bad?

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Statistics on children and heat stroke, via Ward's Auto

Statistics on children and heat stroke, via Ward's Auto

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Every summer, we see dozens of headlines about children being left in hot cars. Many suffer heat strokes, many die. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has begun exploring new technology -- and new mandates -- that might cut down on such tragic incidents. But is that good or bad?

Some background

Between 1998 and 2010, 494 children died after being trapped in hot vehicles. The vast majority of those deaths -- 68% -- were the result of a child being intentionally left in a car or being forgotten by her caregiver. Most of the remaining 32% were caused when children became trapped in a vehicle while playing.  

Roughly ten years ago, after numerous reports of children becoming trapped in car trunks, the NHTSA added a requirement that automakers include a glow-in-the-dark release mechanism inside trunks. That has likely reduced the number of child deaths from heat stroke, but clearly, we have a long way to go: in 2010 alone, 49 children died after being trapped in hot vehicles. That's the highest number in well over a decade.

As a result of these grim statistics, the NHTSA is exploring "countermeasures" to prevent children from dying of heat stroke when left in vehicles. Though the NHTSA hasn't gone into detail about those countermeasures, they would probably need to be deployed by automakers themselves. It's also likely that they're more high-tech than simple glow-in-the-dark latches.

Opinions

Drew Winter at Wards Auto argues that education campaigns are the solution to the problem. He insists that if parents were made aware of the dangers of leaving kids in vehicles -- even on pleasant days where temps range no higher than the mid-70s -- much of this problem could be solved.

But to play devil's advocate, there are at least three arguments to be made in the NHTSA's defense:

1. The technological "countermeasures" that the NHTSA is likely exploring are in the pipeline anyway. Some cars already come with devices that monitor drivers and can tell when they're getting sleepy. We've written before about complementary technology that will keep tabs on other issues, too, like heart health. These developments -- made possible in part by joining nanotechnology and RFID chips -- will eventually be everywhere: in our clothes, our furniture, and so on. The car is not immune. The genie is way out of the bottle here. (For the curious, Dr. Michio Kaku discusses this technology at length in his latest book.)

2. Behind all the rhetoric that Winter uses to vilify "nannying" sits an implicit fear of being nannied. Winter is saying, in essence, "Back off, NHTSA. We've got this." That kind of hubris is always a little suspect. (It can also be dangerous: there's a reason that hubris is often the downfall of tragic figures in literature.) And besides, if we have the technology to make this happen -- as we said we do -- why not employ it? 

3. Education alone may not be sufficient. It would be great to think that everyone with a child is interested in learning to become a better parent, but that's simply not the case. In the medical field, doctors recommend a two-pronged approach of education and treatment; in this case, "treatment" would be equivalent to technological deployment and/or regulation. 

We tend to agree with much of what Winter says, but we also imagine that parents of the 494 children who've died over the past 13 years might have some very different opinions. Feel free to weigh in with your own in the comments below.

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Comments (11)
  1. I strongly disagree with the statement, “education campaigns are the solution to the problem.” It is well known & largely supported by a considerable number of studies, that education alone does NOT change behavior or eliminate tragedies from occurring. Education will not eliminate this problem, mainly because the overwhelming majority of parents/caregivers absolutely do NOT think they could ever ‘forget’ their baby in the car, therefore would not take any precautions to prevent it from happening to them. I’m sure not a single one of the caregivers who inadvertently left their child ever thought it could happen to them. While education is a huge part of the solution, technology must be put in place to counteract the imperfect human brain.
     
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  2. Memory specialists have provided much support that cases of children being unknowingly left in a vehicle are, without a doubt, a fatal result of the failure of the human brain, not the failure of love or responsibility of a caregiver. It is clear that the automakers acknowledge human imperfections because they already provide reminder beeps, lights, alarms in vehicles if you leave your lights on, have a low battery, are low on fuel, have a door ajar, aren’t wearing your seat belt, etc. Ask yourself, what is more important, a dead car battery or a dead baby? Of the children who died from vehicular heat stroke (1998-2010), 54.25% unknowingly left by a caregiver, 31.58% got into the vehicle on their own, 11.94% knowingly left & 1.82% unknown.
     
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  3. To learn about how children are inadvertently forgotten, read the Pulitzer Prize winning article, ‘Fatal Distraction’ (Washington Post, Gene Weingarten). http://kidsandcars.org/upload/pdfs/articles/2009/2009-03-08-WP-Mag-Fatal-Distraction.pdf
     
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  4. If seat belt reminders were required in all seating positions of vehicles, it would be a very simple addition to add a reminder alarm if a child was left in a vehicle. WHY are there seat belt reminders for drivers but NOT for back seat passengers…children…our most precious cargo!?! With the interaction of children and vehicles being the #1 killer of children in the US (by far), how have we not made child vehicle safety a #1 priority?
    How have heated seats, chilled cup holders & other superficial technologies taken precedence over the safety of our children in vehicles?
     
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  5. The auto-maker’s cost-benefit analysis would say that not enough children have died in hot cars for this technology to be included in their vehicles. How many children have to die this horrific, gruesome death before something is done? How many families and communities must suffer the life-changing loss of a precious little angel? I can make one guarantee…if people could spend one second in the shoes of the families who have lost a child to vehicular heat stroke, this would not even be a question…the technology would be there and no more children would have to die in this preventable way.
     
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  6. I wanted to add a bit more information from the org. that’s dedicated to preventing these tragedies, KidsAndCars.org (KAC). KAC is responsible for the Federal regulation requiring trunk releases in all cars 2002 & newer. To this day, not a single person has died in the trunk of a vehicle that has this safety device. KAC’s President, Janette Fennell, began the org after surviving being locked in the trunk of her vehicle with her husband, robbed, assaulted & left in the middle of nowhere to die. Miraculously they escaped & went on to bring national attention to the issues of trunk entrapment, then later to the issues of children alone in vehicles, backovers, frontovers, power window related injuries/death, & vehicles beingknocked into motion
     
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  7. The common thread being that there was no data on how many children were injured or killed & they all happen on private property (i.e. driveways, parking lots, etc.), which is called “nontraffic” incidents. KAC was/is the only group that has collected data & built a nationwide database containing nontraffic injuries & deaths. It is because of their tireless work that we now know how frequently these tragedies occur. They also raise awareness/educate the public on a nationwide basis as well as work with survivor advocates whose children have been seriously injured or killed. Below is some more info from their data.
     
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  8. Amber Jean's comments are probably more enlightening than the article.

    Not sure what the technology would be, and the devils in the details, but if the car could beep or some thing to alert me that I have left my kid in the car, that would be great.

    A baby was lost in a car recently here in Massachusetts. Very sad. But I agree with Amber Jean that well meaning people are fallible and if technology can help, great.
     
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  9. I don't know how you can make people "idiot proof" with technology that shift the responsibility away from the parents.
    In my younger days of schooling(grammar, highschool, college etc)I would marvel at how smart people were. Now I look around and say, "where have all those smart people gone to"? Very few people have common sense anymore or want to be responsible for their actions. The trend is a caution or warning label on things that use to require a common sense approach to life.
     
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  10. I don't think anyone's arguing that parents shouldn't be responsible for the safety of their children. From where I sit, in-car safety for children isn't either/or -- EITHER parents OR the manufacturers -- it's both. After all, we fully expect airplane manufacturers to make planes as safe as possible for their occupants, so why shouldn't we expect automakers to be a part of the solution, too?
     
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  11. Why not install a carbon dioxide detector in the vehicle? When the level increases in a car whose doors were recently closed, the presence of a living being, be it child, elderly person, or pet,upon exhaling this gas past a known level, could trip an alarm to the outside of the vehicle, maybe flash the lights ,honk the horn or signal to a transponder-like device to notify the driver via their mobile internet device, i.e., smart/cellphone, IPod, tablet, whatever.
     
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