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By Janette Fennell
July 29, 2016
IDEAS
Fennell is president of KidsAndCars.org.

Right now, somewhere in the United States, a family is going about their daily lives unaware that by year’s end their child will die in a hot car. They will suffer the same loss that has already consumed 23 families in guilt and grief this year. That includes four this past weekend in Florida, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Texas. On average, 37 children die this way annually in the United States—meaning that at this pace, another 14 more American families will experience this tragedy this year.

When a child becomes trapped in a hot vehicle, it takes only minutes for their core body temperature to rise to 105 degrees. They quickly begin to shut down. It’s often a parent who returns to the childcare facility at the end of the day and is told that their child was never dropped off that morning. No one can imagine the horror when they race back to their vehicle and discover the lifeless body of their child.

It is all too easy for a loving, doting caregiver to inadvertently leave a child behind. Their minds are fatigued and stressed. And because of a catastrophic but common failure, the brain’s “habit” memory overrides the “prospective” memory. They innocently forget.

Since 1990, at least 775 children have died of vehicular heat stroke, according to KidsAndCars.org’s tracking of these incidents. Even though we know that solutions exist to prevent these deaths, making this loss of lives even more tragic.

One solution is education. Parents and caregivers must know about how an overtaxed brain can fail. And childcare providers need to call—and not just leave a message—if the child does not show up at daycare as expected. Most important, drivers must get in the habit of checking the backseat every time they arrive at their destination: “Look before you lock.” One way to do this is to put their cellphone, handbag or employee badge in the back seat with the child to ensure they always open the back door when they arrive at their destination.

In other cases, a child climbs into a vehicle to play and is overcome by heat, becoming disoriented and thus unable to get out. To stop this from happening, we must always lock vacated vehicles when parked. Keys should be kept out of the reach of children. And if a child goes missing, vehicles and car trunks should be checked immediately.

But education is not enough. We cannot educate every single parent, grandparent, babysitter and caregiver in the country. And most parents don’t believe that the worst mistake a parent can make could happen to them. But blaming them only deepens the heart-rending impact of these incidents for families who are already overwhelmed by guilt and grief. To err is to be human.

It’s essential, then, that we also rethink how vehicles protect us. An unintended consequence of parents moving child car-seats to the backseat to prevent airbag deaths is that children are now out of sight. They then become out of mind. This puts them at risk.

For over a decade, advocates have informed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about these deaths and the technology that could help prevent such tragic deaths. Though NHTSA was tasked with studying available and potential technology to prevent child vehicular heat stroke, they are not working toward a solution.

Countless inventors have stepped up offering remedies. Our vehicles remind us to buckle our seat belts, turn off the headlights and take our keys with us. Though while that proves that auto manufacturers realize humans need reminders, those companies have not implemented a sensor and alert system to protect the most precious passengers—our children.

This year, one manufacturer, GMC, finally stepped up and included a reminder system in one of their 2017 models. Just one vehicle, the Acadia, in the entire United States being sold will have a reminder system.

When we learn about the possibility of tainted peanut butter, store shelves are emptied immediately. Bad hamburger is immediately recalled. As are faulty kids toys. Yet, we shamefully remain complacent about the children who continue to die for something utterly preventable. For the sake of the children and their families, we must change. Car companies must change in order to protect their passengers. And until they do, parents and caregivers must be made aware of what we all can do.

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