Remarkably, the number of children dying of heat stroke in locked cars is on the rise. Based on statistics compiled by a meteorologist at San Jose State University, 29 children already had died through the end of July nationwide. That's a faster pace than any year on record, and there's no sign of slowing down. One of the first issues the Senate should address upon its September return is a bill introduced on July 31 that will eventually require all new cars to come equipped with sensors to alert drivers if a child is in the backseat when the car is turned off.
This legislation is particularly relevant in Florida, which historically has trailed only Texas in the number of heat-related deaths in cars. Just days ago, a 3 year-old Orlando boy died when a day care worker lost track of how many children had been loaded into a van. Myles Hill was the fifth child to die in Florida this year, and the third in a five-week span. Sadly, this is nothing new. Florida has averaged more than four deaths a year for the past two decades.
The phenomenon of children unintentionally left in cars is relatively new, dating to the 1990s, when front seat airbags made it dangerous for kids to ride up front. The unintended consequence of moving car seats into the back was that it was easier to occasionally forget a sleeping child. This might seem inconceivable to many, but it does happen when parents get stressed or fatigued or do not typically have taxi duties.
Safety experts suggest leaving a briefcase, cellphone or work badge in the back so drivers get into the habit of looking behind them before exiting. That's a helpful strategy, but it's not nearly enough.
In an age when sensors alert us if we haven't put on a seat belt, or turned off the headlights or left the keys in the ignition, there is no reason similar technology cannot be universally employed for car seats. General Motors has developed technology in some models that will alert a driver if the back door had been opened at the start of a trip. Another possibility is a sensor that can detect the tiniest amount of breathing in the back seat.
The Senate bill does not require a specific sensor system, only a performance standard that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would make mandatory for all new cars within the next two years. Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, introduced a similar bill in the House earlier in July and told the Washington Post that the cost to car manufacturers would be "very, very small.''
Studies have shown the temperature inside a car sitting in the sun can rise nearly 20 degrees within 10 minutes. That means a locked car can become deadly in the time it takes to walk into a grocery store and go through the express line. And in Florida, that risk exists virtually year-round. In the past decade, Florida children have died in locked cars in every month on the calendar except January and November.
This legislation is not just necessary. It is long overdue. It is a relatively minor fix for a problem that has not just cruelly taken the lives of babies and children, but has left devastated parents and caregivers in their wake.