Automakers, Congress Address Child Heat Deaths in Cars

Dozens of young children nationwide die every year from heatstroke after being left in the back seat of a hot vehicle.

In response, automakers are starting to introduce technology to help combat the problem, and a U.S. Senate bill introduced in July would make it mandatory for new cars to come equipped with technology to alert the driver to check the back seat when the engine is turned off.

Since 1998, an average of 38 children under the age of 14 have died of heatstroke each year in the U.S., according to the Office of the Administration for Children and Families. Children are at a much higher risk of overheating than adults because children overheat up to five times faster than adults and many are too young to communicate when they’re suffering.

Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Al Franken of Minnesota introduced the Helping Overcome Trauma for Children Alone in Rear Seat (HOT CARS) Act in the wake of two baby boys dying in as many days in Phoenix after being left in hot cars in late July. A similar measure was previously introduced in the House of Representatives.

“A simple sensor could save the lives of dozens of children killed tragically in overheated cars each year, and my bill would ensure such technology is available in every car sold in the United States,” Blumenthal said when announcing the bill. “It can take mere minutes on a hot day for a car to turn into a deathtrap for a small child. This basic technology, combined with public awareness and vigilance, can help prevent these catastrophes and safe lives.”

Rear-seat alert technology already exists. General Motors has utilized its Rear Seat Reminder system in some models since 2016. In cars with this system, a series of chimes and a dashboard message display will activate when the engine is shut off and a back door had been recently opened. This summer, Nissan debuted Rear Door Alert, which honks at a driver who opened the rear door before going somewhere and then leaves the vehicle without opening the rear door again.

“Parents need a simple, reliable, and effective way to avoid the unthinkable act of forgetting their child in the backseat when they get out of the car,” said David Friedman, Director of Cars and Product Policy and Analysis for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports. “Congress should pass the HOT CARS Act without delay to help parents avoid the devastation of losing a child to heatstroke.”

As temperatures continue to hover at or near triple digits across California, any parents who suspect a child or other family member is suffering from heat-related symptoms should contact a doctor or, in extreme cases, go straight to a hospital. Be sure the doctor’s license is in good standing by checking the status on the Medical Board of California website (www.mbc.ca.gov).

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