U.S. won’t mandate tech fix to prevent hot car deaths

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Oxon Hill, Md. — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has no plans to require automakers to add in-vehicle technology that would alert parents who leave young children behind in hot cars.

NHTSA held an event outside Washington to highlight the risks to children of being left behind in cars. The number of reported deaths this year has fallen sharply — 11 so far — compared with 31 for all of 2014. NHTSA and other advocates think increased public awareness may help explain the reduction.

Asked if the agency is even considering launching the regulatory process to eventually require the technology, Rosekind said no. But he didn’t rule out a change down the road if the industry didn’t make progress. “Not at this point, but this is the first step,” Rosekind said.

Rosekind says it is important that parents and caregivers always make sure to check for their children. NHTSA recommends leaving something in the back seat like a wallet, briefcase or cellphone to ensure that parents check the back seat — or to leave a teddy bear in the front seat to remind them of the child in the backseat. “There’s no reason we can’t have technology backstops,” Rosekind told reporters after the event that featured a father whose young daughter died in a hot car after he accidentally left her there.

He said there are no plans to begin the regulatory process to require an in-vehicle fix.”This is one of those classic cases I think where, best practices, if people develop them, and they work, and they’re effective, we don’t need to get into it. This is an area where if we don’t see that kind of work we would absolutely consider that for regulation,” Rosekind said, saying the agency would continue to address the industry’s actions.

It would take months or more than a year to begin the regulatory process to require the technology by issuing a proposed regulation — then additional months or years to finalize it. Automakers then would get a minimum 18 months lead time before the technology could be mandated in new vehicles.

It would be difficult to justify an expensive technological fix to address a small number of deaths on a cost-benefit analysis. NHTSA spent years working to finalize rules requiring rear-view cameras because of significant expense and relatively few lives that would be saved.

Between 1998 and 2014, there were 38 deaths on average in hot cars, according to San Jose State University. About half were children left behind in hot cars, 29 percent were children playing in unattended cars and 18 percent were intentionally left behind. That means a technological fix would likely address only about half of those deaths.

A group called Kids and Cars noted that Congress granted NHTSA authority to study technological fixes in 2012 and called on NHTSA to take faster action. Senate Democrats this month introduced legislation that would direct NHTSA to conduct new research into the issue and “either commence a rule making within a year of completing the two-year research initiative or to submit a report to Congress on its reasons for not commencing such a rule making.”

NHTSA has been studying since 2011 the issue of whether after-market devices would be effective in preventing children from being left behind. No major automaker has added any in-vehicle technology to prevent children from being left behind. In a new report released Friday, NHTSA said its review of seven aftermarket products — including three unveiled last year — “offer product developers a set of testing applications that may be used to benchmark their designs and to improve system performance.”

Some systems send an alert to a driver’s mobile phone if they forgot a child, while others send an alert to the key fob or horn. They could also be added to more new car seats, Rosekind said.

General Motors vice president for safety Jeff Boyer said the automaker is also studying the technology, but he said in the meantime it is important to keep up the work on outreach and education to parents. A Chevrolet Volt was part of the demonstration with Safe Kids Worldwide showing firefighters responding to a report of a child left behind in a car.

Some industry experts think automakers are concerned about liability issues and the need for any system to be nearly perfect which is one reason none have added the devices to vehicles.