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Child-Left-in-Hot-Car Reminder Devices Unreliable: Study

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Where's baby? Look before you lock.A new study shows that after-market devices designed to remind parents to take young children out of the car on hot days do not work reliably and parents should not depend on them as a stand-alone measure for preventing child heatstroke tragedies. According to an NHTSA press release:

Heatstroke is the leading cause of non-crash, vehicle-related deaths for children under the age of 14. Data from the San Francisco State University Department of Geosciences show 33 children died last year due to heatstroke — medically termed ‘hyperthermia’ – while there were at least 49 deaths in 2010. As part of a comprehensive approach to this issue, NHTSA commissioned CHOP [The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia] to evaluate a number of commercially available aftermarket products that connect to child restraints and are advertised to help parents and caregivers remember children who they may have unintentionally left behind in a parked vehicle.

The study found that the technical limitations of 18 products (including 11 currently for sale, as David Shepardson reports in The Detroit News) included: inconsistencies in arming sensitivity, variations in warning signal distance, potential interference with the device’s notification signals from other electronic devices, susceptibility of the systems to misuse when beverages are spilled, and the disarming of the devices if a child is slumping or otherwise out of position.

The statement goes on to say that the systems can give parents a false sense of security because they require extensive setup, monitoring and operating efforts by parents and caregivers. In addition, because the technologies are based on child restraints, they would not address the 20 to 40% of children who are killed when they “gain access to the vehicle without an adult present or are not in child restraints.”

Shepardson writes that since 1998, 527 children left in hot cars have been reported to die of heatstroke. And Jeff Plungis notes for Bloomberg News on that temperatures can reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit inside a closed car, even when the outside temperature is in the 60s, increasing almost 20 degrees within the first 10 minutes, according to NHTSA.

NHTSA asks members of the community to call 911 immediately when they see a child alone in a parked car, and say the child should be removed as soon as possible and given cool water if in distress. The agency also strongly urges parents to do the following:

•    Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle — even if the windows are partially open or the engine is running and the air conditioning is on;
•    Make a habit of looking in the vehicle — front and back — before locking the door and walking away;
•    Ask the childcare provider to call if the child does not show up for care as expected;
•    Do things that serve as a reminder a child is in the vehicle, such as placing a cell phone, purse or briefcase in the back seat to ensure no child is accidentally left in the vehicle, writing a note or using a stuffed animal placed in the driver’s view to indicate a child is in the car seat; and,
•    Teach children a vehicle is not a play area and store keys out of a child’s reach.

Here is an NHTSA public service announcement called “Where’s baby? Look before you lock”:


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