Feighan: Can car alerts help reduce hot car deaths?

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

The dashboard registered 84 degrees when I drove to the grocery store late last week, got out with my son and quickly realized I’d almost forgotten something critical: my other child.

Luckily, I remembered within seconds that I’d come to the store with two kids, not one. My mind was such a whirlwind of grocery lists, weekend plans and work priorities that I’d almost forgotten what matters most.

Tragically, not all parents remember. Dozens of children die every year from heatstroke-related deaths after being accidentally left in cars or playing in them without their parent’s knowledge.

Now, two lawmakers are calling on regulators to enact a rule that would force the auto industry to install alerts to help prevent these deaths.

U.S. Sens. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, co-sponsored a bill in July that would direct the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require cars come equipped with technology to alert drivers to check the back seat when the car is turned off. It also calls for a study on options to retrofit current cars with aftermarket technology.

“We can do something to prevent these terrible tragedies, and that’s why I’ve helped introduce commonsense legislation that would make sure there are measures in place to alert you if your child is left in the back seat,” said Franken in a press release.

At least two automakers are already stepping up to the task.

General Motors was the industry’s first automaker to develop a groundbreaking technology that alerts drivers to check a vehicle’s back seat.

Introduced in the 2017 GMC Acadia last year, GM’s Rear Seat Reminder is linked to a rear door sensor and is activated when either rear door is opened and closed within 10 minutes before the car is started. When the car is turned off, a message flashes to check the back seat along with five audible chimes.

Tricia Morrow, GM’s global safety strategy engineer, was part of the team that worked on the Rear Seat Reminder, which took about two years to develop. Pregnant with her first child as they worked on the project, Morrow remembers paying close attention to reports on hot car deaths and how much they hit close to home.

“We kept hearing about all these deaths and we felt like we really needed to do something,” said Morrow.

That “something” is the Rear Seat Reminder. And while it might not solve the problem of heatstroke-related deaths, it’s certainly a start. GM has since announced plans to expand the feature into 17 more models.

“We really wanted to create something that makes parents or caregivers take one last extra look,” says Morrow, who says it is GM’s strategy to incorporate this technology in the rest of its fleet.

Nissan, meanwhile, has developed its own alert system called the Rear Door Alert. It also detects when the rear door has been used and flashes a message on the instrument panel to check the backseat when the car is turned off. It can progress to “subtle but distinctive chirps” of the horn, according to a news release. It’ll debut in the 2018 Nissan Pathfinder, available next month.

Heatstroke is the leading cause of non-crash related deaths of children under the age of 14, according to NHTSA. According to noheatstroke.org, 32 children have already died this year from heatstroke-related deaths, including two Arizona children who died in hot cars after temperatures hit triple digits. Thirty-nine kids died in 2016.

Morrow says as much judgment as there is about heatstroke-related deaths, “it’s really important to remember that it can really happen to anyone.” She says cars heat up really quickly so it’s important to never leave a child alone in a vehicle and keep your car locked so kids can’t play inside.

“We live in a very distracted time,” says Morrow. “And whether we like it or not, sometimes we forget even the most important things.”