Should cars warn when there's a child inside on hot days?

Should cars warn
when there's a child
inside on hot days?


August 31, 2010

By Jayne O'Donnell, USA TODAY
 
 
By Joel Andrews, The Lufkin (Texas) Daily News
Lufkin, Texas, Police technician Debra Walsh carries a baby seat from a vehicle in which a 3-month-old was found dead on Aug. 24.
 
Safety advocates are urging Congress and
regulators to force carmakers to install warning
systems that would prevent distracted parents from
leaving children in cars, preventing heatstroke
deaths.

At least 41 children have died already this year in
hot cars, more than any previous year at this point.
August was the deadliest month on record,
according to the advocacy group Kids and Cars.

Although much of the U.S. had record temperatures
from May to July, meteorologist Jan Null says the
temperature in a closed car can rise 19 degrees in
10 minutes and 43 degrees in an hour, so even
cooler days present risks.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
is considering a petition to include safety belt
reminder chimes for all seating positions. In
comments she plans to submit this week to NHTSA,
 
Kids and Cars President Janette Fennell says these
same chimes that sense if people aren't buckled in
should also warn if children are still buckled in cars
after they're locked.

Safety groups including the Consumer Federation of
America and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety
also plan to push for language that requires driver-
reminder chimes for kids in cars to be included
soon in sweeping highway legislation.

"If you're going to have a reminder system for
people to buckle up, why not remind them if they
haven't taken the child out of the seat?" asks Jackie
Gillan, vice president of the Advocates for Highway
and Auto Safety.

While NHTSA says it plans to evaluate technology
that could address the problem, the agency stressed
that parents and passersby must recognize the risk
to kids in hot cars.

"While there may be technologies that help remind
parents to never leave a child alone in a car,
nothing can replace the need for a parent to be
vigilant," says NHTSA chief David Strickland.

Still, consumer groups say they're frustrated that
once-promising technology to prevent deaths to
children locked in hot cars isn't available.

Automakers say it's not as easy as it sounds. Using
sensors to detect heat, heartbeats and/or the weight
of children can be an inexact science, as is deciding
when to sound alarms.
General Motors has considered several types of
technology to warn drivers that a child is in the
back seat, including alarms that sound when the
inside of a car gets dangerously hot and a person is
still inside.
GM spokesman Alan Adler says none of
the approaches "are reliable enough to put in a
vehicle," but says GM is still trying to find a
solution.

•Auto supplier Delphi patented child-seat
technology in 2007 that warns when the
temperature around a child seat gets too high.
Delphi spokeswoman Barbara Graves says some
automakers "have shown interest in the technology"
but none currently plan to install it on their cars.

NASA engineers filed a patent in late 2001 on
technology that would alert drivers moments after
they locked a child in a car. Chris Edwards, the lead
inventor, says he, too, has attracted interest from
automakers but no contracts. Edwards and two other
engineers invented the device after a colleague's
infant died after being left in the car.

Mukul Verma, an auto safety consultant and former
top GM safety expert, says seat belt reminders that
also warn parents children are still in cars aren't
necessarily warning about a dangerous situation.
Warning systems need to alert parents there is "the
possibility of injury or death due to extra heat" or
parents may become annoyed and ignore or
disconnect the systems.

"There is no doubt that something needs to be
done," says Verma. But any in-car system "has to be
completely foolproof in achieving its purpose."

From 1998 through 2009, 51% of the deaths
involved children forgotten in cars, 30% were
children playing in unattended vehicles and 18%
were intentionally left in cars, says Null.

It would take more than a decade for all cars to have
any new technology, making public awareness the
most important step, says
Kyle Johnson, spokesman
for the child safety group Safe Kids Worldwide. He
urges people to lock their cars and keep keys out of
reach of kids, which he notes would prevent many
of the deaths.

But advocates insist technology is the answer. "We
have reminders in our cars for lights, keys, doors,
tire pressure and fuel," says Consumer Federation of
America spokesman Jack Gillis. "Reminders
regarding our most precious cargo are an absolute
must."

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