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We need solutions to prevent child deaths in hot cars

How could anyone leave a child in a car, forgotten?

Stop before you judge. If you've never read one of the best long-form pieces written about this tragedy, you should. Written by Gene Weingarten in The Washington Post back in 2009, Fatal Distraction is a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece that offers up the proverbial mile in another's shoes as well as an in-depth journey into the mechanics of the brain.

If you think it's a fairly new parenting gut punch, you're right. The advent of rear-facing child seats has reconfigured – literally – the way we drive with children on board. It sounds flip to put the words "out of sight, out of mind" into this equation, but our brains are hardwired at a level beyond our cognizance and everybody screws up some time. Unfortunately, we don't get to choose those times, or we'd never forget anything, let alone something as dear as a child.

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While it happens in all regions and in all weather, elevated temperatures are particularly devastating to the elderly, the disabled, pets and children. The U.S. National Weather Service cites dark dashboards and interiors that are capable of reaching temperatures exceeding 82 C; these components are incredibly efficient at heating the air around them, making the inside of a car deadly in minutes. With an outside temperature of 26 C, a car interior can reach 50 C in just an hour.

But who could do this? Who could walk away from a car, absolutely forgetting a child? According to the Washington Post article, "The wealthy do... the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counsellor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist."

When horrific things happen to other people, most of us are quick to find reasons why it couldn't happen to us. How else to process the unthinkable, but to distance ourselves from it? We do it from the minor – I won't slip because I wear sensible shoes – to the major – I won't spend my life in prison because I'd never murder someone. But finding comfort in finding a personal escape clause is flawed on two fronts: it offers you no real guarantee, and it fails to prevent a real problem.

As you can imagine, the market was flooded with fixes as the headlines grew. You can trace pages of patents over the past decade, and I've heard of everything from people flogging a suction cupped toy you slap on your dash each time you put your child in the car, to higher-tech car seat sensors paired to a gadget on your keychain. The problem? Too much of a fail factor.

If a buckle sensor fails because apple juice hits it, it's no good. If a battery fails in a remote, it's no good. It's not that aftermarket brains can't sort out some excellent ideas; it's the threat of one of those failing at some level that sends people scurrying from the litigious fallout.

Which leads to the only response that will ever make sense: the manufacturers. If a car can tell me every single time that I've left my lights on, it can tell me if something is resting on any rear seat. It can't be an option; it can't be disabled. Various companies, including General Motors, have been announcing work in this area sporadically for more than a decade. but in recent years, it's been crickets.

On July 1, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers posted a note about children and hyperthermia in cars. The group's stated intent is to be a "united voice for the auto industry." Members include all the big-name manufacturers, and it seeks to address industry news and economics, safety and innovation. In the midst of several reported child deaths in recent days, what did the bulletin state? That people should keep car keys away from children, and put a diaper bag on the front seat to remind yourself you have a child in the car.

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I recall when Volvo rolled out the intruder alert sensor several years back. From a heartbeat sensor on the key fob, you could tell if someone was hiding in your car. Never heard of it? Didn't think so; buyers ignored it in droves. But the technology is indicative of what the industry is capable of if the demand is there. Unfortunately, car technology is predicated on numbers. Rear cameras are becoming ubiquitous while passenger sensors are stagnating because, as horrible as it sounds, more children are run over than are left in cars.

What if consumers could be convinced of auxiliary uses? What if, like a back-up camera preventing rollovers on to bikes and hockey nets, a seat sensor became useful to remind you of a briefcase tossed in the back seat, or that last grocery bag? If we can't make you care about some random child, can we make you care about your own convenience?

I will gladly hand back things like the ability to read Facebook updates while driving to achieve this. Instead of technology seeking out new ways to distract us, maybe it should be used to do the opposite.

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About the Author
Drive, She Said columnist

Lorraine Sommerfeld began writing when she was about to turn 40, because it was cheaper than a red convertible. Her weekly column Drive, She Said, while existing in the automobile section, is a nod to those of us who tend to turn the key rather than pop the hood. More


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