Thirty-seven children die trapped in hot cars every year. Eight hundred have died since 1990; nine so far in 2017. All of those deaths were completely avoidable, says U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio. And to help prevent them, he recently introduced the HOT CARS (Helping Overcome Trauma for Children Alone in Rear Seats) Act of 2017. Timed to coincide with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s Vehicular Heatstroke Prevention Campaign, the bi-partisan bill would require cars come with an alarm system to notify the driver if a passenger remains in the back seat when a car is turned off. It’s cosponsored by Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).
“Our cars can already alert drivers when they leave their keys in the car, their lights on, or their trunk open – none of which are life-threatening,” Ryan said in an official statement, “It is not unusual for the government to mandate safety features to protect lives.” He introduced the same piece of legislation last year and, despite the backing of over 20 national safety organizations including KidsAndCars.org, AAA, and American Academy of Pediatrics, it failed to gain any momentum in a Republican-controlled Congress opposed to passing new regulations on businesses.
Ryan notes that General Motors already has the technology and will begin installing it in select models as early as this year. According to a report by CNN, there will be a warning tone and a reminder message in the speedometer that reads “Look in Rear Seat.”
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Meanwhile, several startups including Elepho and Sense A Life are tackling the problem with standalone smart devices that attach to a child’s car seat. When the driver walks too far away from the vehicle without the baby, an alert pops up on their smartphone. If they still don’t respond, the devices also notify an emergency contact.
While the idea of someone forgetting their child in the back seat of the car is hard for many ⏤ parents and non-parents, alike ⏤ to fathom, it’s not at all uncommon. Thankfully, most of these memory lapses don’t end up on the evening news.
In a recent Washington Post article, David Diamond, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida said the forgetfulness was triggered by a change in routine, lack of sleep, or some distraction. He added: “These children were not forgotten by parents that were reckless with regard to care for their children. This phenomenon must be explained from a brain science perspective, not one that blames parents for being negligent.” The problem now even has a name: Forgotten Baby Syndrome (FBS).
Ryan, himself a father of three, is also the author of a book on mindfulness, A Mindful Nation. He argues that Americans need to “slow down, pay attention, and become aware of their inner resources.” But he also recognizes that until parents begin to heed this advice, these senseless deaths will continue. “Our society is so busy today, there is so much going on with parents running from here to there,” he said when introducing the bill last year. And there’s no reason why when they technology exists, we shouldn’t be using it.
While it’s unclear whether Ryan’s re-introduced legislation will make any headway in the 115th Congress, even if it passed it would still take up to 15 years for the technology to find its way into most vehicles. Which means it’s going to be up to parents to remain vigilant. They can start by following KidsAndCars.org’s Look Before You Lock Safety Checklist.