COVID-19 Could Lead to Surge in Child In-Car Heatstroke Deaths

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented very real health and safety implications for everyone, and child safety proponents are warning caregivers that it could lead to more in-car heatstroke deaths. As summer camps are canceled and parents scramble to work and take care of out-of-school children, a lack of supervision is leading to more kids accidentally locking themselves in a car and dying of heatstroke.

Related: Child In-Car Heatstroke Prevention Calls for High-Tech Solutions, Vigilant Parents

Today (July 31) is Heatstroke Awareness Day and KidsandCars.org, along with lawmakers, is trying to raise awareness about the dangers of in-car heatstroke deaths and promote the Helping Overcome Trauma for Children Alone in Rear Seats Act, legislation that would mandate that all new passenger vehicles be equipped with a child safety alert system that would provide audio and visual warnings both inside and outside the vehicle.

Industry Regulation 

On July 1, the Hot Cars Act, which has gone through many iterations in recent years, passed the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is now awaiting Senate approval.

“It is unforgivable when we lose our children in something that we can prevent,” Schakowsky said in a statement. “There are technologies right now to prevent these hot car deaths.”

She continued: “I am happy to say that Hot Cars legislation passed as part of the infrastructure bill (HR 2) from the House of Representatives. And now the question is, are we going to get it passed by the Senate? Are we going to get it signed by the President so no more children needlessly die in hot cars?”

Opponents of the bill would prefer to see the industry self-regulate. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers, members of which together account for nearly all vehicles sold in the U.S., have agreed to add rear-seat reminders to their vehicles by no later than the 2025 model year.

The voluntary action doesn’t go far enough, according to advocates, and the types of systems automakers are rolling out are not robust enough. Most, like GM’s Rear Seat Reminder and Nissan’s Rear Door Alert system, use door sequence logic and activate only if the rear doors were opened at the beginning of the trip, but not at the end. Critics say these systems only infer something is left behind rather than detect a forgotten child, and don’t help in situations where a child was playing in the car and became accidentally trapped.

Janette Fennell, president of KidsAndCars.org, and the co-sponsors of the bill counter that better technology already exists, and it’s not very expensive to implement. They pointed to one system that’s already available in mainstream, affordable vehicles: Hyundai and Kia’s Ultrasonic Rear Occupant Alert system. It uses sensors to monitor the backseat for movement and will alert the driver via the instrument panel and by honking the horn, flashing the lights and sending an alert to a connected app.

Tech Company Partnerships?

The legislators and advocates also point to companies that have developed smarter systems, and urge automakers to partner with those organizations. The VitaSense device from automotive sensing-system supplier IEE Sensing, for example, determines movement in the car by using low-power radio frequency to transmit a signal that is then reflected by occupants or objects.

Dr. Joseph M. Funyak, IEE’s senior vice president of transformative products & technologies, said one auto manufacturer is planning to partner with the company and that the tech will go into a production vehicle in the fall. He would not confirm which vehicle, however.

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Education and Vigilance

In the meantime, children keep dying in hot cars — 14 so far this year, according to Jan Null, of the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science. Null’s website, NoHeatstroke.org, has tracked 863 heatstroke deaths since 1998, and more than a quarter of hot car deaths are due to a child entering the vehicle without parents’ knowledge. 

Car seat manufacturer Britax, along with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, urges caregivers to heighten their vigilance and use the following Look Before You Lock checklist:

  • Make it a routine to open the back door of your car every time you park to check that no one has been left behind.
  • Put something in the backseat — cellphone, employee badge, handbag, etc. — to remind you to open the back door every time you park.
  • Keep a stuffed animal in the youngster’s car seat. Place it on the front seat as a reminder when the child is in the backseat.
  • Keep vehicles locked at all times, even in the garage or driveway.
  • Keep vehicle keys out of reach of children.

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