The U.S. auto industry rightly has been criticized for opposing government safety regulations over the years, but auto makers still need to push back when regulators go overboard.
A good place to start pushing is the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.’s investigation into technology that prevents children from dying in hot cars from heat stroke, or hyperthermia.
NHTSA convened a major roundtable on child hyperthermia last July in Washington.
It since has hosted numerous town hall meetings in hot-weather states with health professionals, victims, law enforcement and concerned parents to gather information as part of a nationwide effort to step up child heatstroke education and prevention.
As part of this campaign, NHTSA says it is in the early stages of investigating several technological “countermeasures” designed to prevent child hyperthermia deaths.
Education and awareness campaigns are fine ideas, but using technology to somehow put vehicles in charge of protecting children from negligent or clueless parents is wrongheaded and bad policy. It looks like the Nanny State wants to create nanny cars.
Data from the Department of Geosciences at San Francisco State University show that of the 494 child hyperthermia deaths recorded from 1998 to 2010, 68% were the result of the child being “forgotten” by a caregiver or intentionally left in the vehicle by an adult.
Another 30% of the deaths were the result of a child playing and becoming trapped in an unattended, unlocked vehicle. These deaths could have been avoided altogether if owners had locked their vehicles.
Criminal charges were brought in half these deaths, but others appear to be instances where a child was left unattended for a relatively short time.
A study by SFSU researcher Jan Null shows vehicles can reach lethal temperatures in only a few minutes, even with the windows cracked open and outside temperatures in the low 70s (21° C).
This is due partly because the lower body mass of children causes them to succumb to heat stroke faster than adults.
This information is surprising, but the solution is parenting 101 and does not require fancy technology: Don’t leave your kid alone in the car.
NHTSA first required anti-hyperthermia technology 10 years ago, after several highly publicized incidents where children died after being accidentally trapped in car trunks while playing.
Back then, the solution was cheap and effective: a glow-in-the-dark latch release inside the trunk compartment. Most auto makers happily complied well before the deadline.
Lives have been saved, but even after a decade, children still get trapped in car trunks and die. There are 250 million vehicles on U.S. roads.
With scrappage rates running at 5% or 6%, it will be many more years before all unsafe trunks are gone. Even good technology solutions such as this prove to be slow in eradicating many problems.
NHTSA declines to identify the new technologies it currently is researching, but they likely will require electronics and be more complex than a mere glow-in-the-dark latch release.
The fastest way to reduce these tragedies is for NHTSA to devote its energies to awareness campaigns reminding parents that children can never be left alone in a vehicle and citizens to always lock their vehicles and call 911 if they see a child alone in a hot car.
NHTSA has investigated and mandated many crucial safety technologies over the years, from airbags to electronic stability control, but it should not waste another minute on those aimed at doing the job parents are supposed to do.