With scorching summer temperatures and several hyperthermia-related child deaths across the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is exploring ways to prevent child fatalities in hot cars.
The key question appears to be: Can automotive technology help prevent those kinds of deaths?
“Every life is sacred and precious and we do our best to fulfill our mission to reduce fatalities and injuries due to roadway crashes, but there is nothing that frankly is more heartbreaking, more terrifying or more psychologically damaging than losing a young child,” NHTSA chief David Strickland said at a roundtable discussion Tuesday in Washington.
According to the Department of Geosciences at San Francisco State University, 38 children, ages 14 and under, die on average each year in the United States as a result of excessive heat after being left in vehicles. Since the university began conducting research in 1998, there have been 513 child deaths from hyperthermia in vehicles. In 2010, the death count peaked at 43. This year the university has recorded 21 such deaths.
San Francisco State University Professor Jan Null, who conducted the research, was among the many advocates, auto industry representatives and relatives of victims at the roundtable meeting.
Null, who has worked with General Motors to spread awareness of vehicular hyperthermia, said the deaths show how quickly enclosed vehicles heat up.
“Cars get very hot, very fast,” he said. “In the first 10 minutes alone, the temperature rises 19 degrees above whatever the outside air temperature is.”
Null also said a vehicle’s interior color plays a substantial role. His data showed that a vehicle with a darker interior color had a substantially higher inside temperature than one with a lighter color.
Roundtable participants, including Dr. Kristy Arbogast, director of engineering at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, discussed whether technology might help find a solution to the problem. Arbogast announced that her hospital is conducting research on the effectiveness of aftermarket products designed to remind a caregiver that a child is still in the car.
“In collaboration with two partners at Ohio State University, we are going to evaluate currently available technologies that are designed to prevent children from being left in enclosed vehicles,” Arbogast said.
She said the study will examine how effectively the technology detects the child, alerts the caregiver and influences the caregiver’s behavior.
However, Michael Cammisa, director of safety for the Association of Global Automakers, said public education campaigns could be more effective given that devices such as vehicle alert systems, which aim to draw attention to a child left in a vehicle, could have “unintended consequences”.
“We’ve had some discussions about technology solutions, but we recognize their limitations trying to address all the different circumstances,” Cammisa said.
Strickland said that although technology could be a solution down the road, NHTSA will host more roundtable discussions to promote awareness immediately. The other roundtables, which he expects to begin in August, will be held in Illinois, Texas, Arizona and other places.