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prevent hot car deaths
Hot Cars Kill: Focusing Efforts to Prevent Tragedy
July 29, 2021
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It is shaping up to be a hot and busy summer! Across the country, people have been getting back into their cars to work, travel, and interact with each other at levels not seen since the COVID-19 pandemic began. With summer temperatures reaching all-time highs, the threat of pediatric heatstroke has returned.

We have written about the dangers that hot cars pose to children twice in the past. Hot car deaths unfortunately continue to be a problem in the United States. Each year, approximately 40 children die in hot cars. Countless more are injured due to dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. So far this year, 10 hot car deaths have been reported, and more are expected as the summer continues.  

Each year, approximately 40 children die in hot cars.

These injuries and deaths are tragic but preventable. Efforts to protect children from hot cars have primarily focused on raising awareness, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s “Look Before You Lock” safety campaign. Expanding beyond reliance on caregiver vigilance, which is imperfect at best, has long been a goal for public health practitioners and child advocates. Fortunately, there have been several promising developments in recent years.  

Supporting the Hot Cars Act

In May of this year, a bipartisan sponsored bill called the Hot Cars Act was reintroduced into the U.S. House of Representatives. If passed, the act would require new vehicles to be equipped with technology to detect if individuals are inside a vehicle while the engine is off. If detected, the bill would require the technology to trigger auditory and visual warnings both inside and outside of the car.

Additional provisions would support linking the technology to the emergency response network. Though similar prior bills have not been signed into law, lawmakers and child advocacy groups continue to push for this crucial and definitive safety legislation to be passed.

New Car Safety Technologies On The Horizon

Several commercial hot car safety devices and mobile applications currently exist. However, these devices are not regulated and may not operate consistently. They require consumer investment and deliberate use to be effective. Furthermore, these devices, which often detect children in restraints or remind caregivers before they exit a vehicle, do not protect children intentionally left in a vehicle or who become accidentally trapped in one while playing.

To this end, in a project funded by the Center for Child Injury Prevention Studies (CChIPS), CIRP researcher Jalaj Maheshwari, MSE is reviewing real-world vehicular heatstroke cases to determine prevention and alerting technologies, as well as to document different strategies used by vehicle and child seat assessment programs to prevent heatstroke.

In 2019, multiple automakers voluntarily agreed to include standard rear-seat reminder systems in vehicles by the 2025 model year. This spring, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a waiver to allow for radio spectrum technology use within cars. This waiver would allow for installation of radar-based safety systems, which are theoretically more sensitive than the ultrasonic sensors currently available.  

Safety Tips

Until voluntary and legislative safety efforts are enacted, hot car safety remains primarily the responsibility of child caregivers. Several important safety tips to remember this summer include:  

  • Make it a habit to check the entire vehicle—front and back—prior to locking
  • Place a personal item, such as a stuffed animal or other memento, in a child’s car seat when it is empty and in the passenger seat as a visual reminder while a child is in the car seat
  • Store keys out of a child’s reach
  • Lock car doors when a car is parked so a child cannot enter a vehicle unattended