Evolving technology aims to prevent kids from being left in hot cars

There's technology that could help alert parents who have forgotten a child in the backseat, but On Your Side discovered it's not standard in most vehicles.
Published: Sep. 14, 2023 at 2:11 PM MST
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MESA, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- Since 1990, 1,050 children have died in hot cars, and according to the organization Kids and Car Safety, 47 of those tragedies happened in Arizona. Technology to alert parents and caregivers to a child who’s been left in the back seat is becoming more common, but it is not standard on most vehicles.

Some parents, like Payj Burns are comforted by alerts that pop up in her vehicle, reminding her to check the back seat for her seven month old daughter, Carter. “Now it’s so a part of my routine and part of my daily life that I wouldn’t want to go without it,” she said. The new mom drives regularly for work as an Instacart shopper, and Carter is often along for the ride. “I want to make sure she’s safe in everything we do together,” Burns added.

The technology is also important to Carter’s dad, James Cox. He works at Courtesy KIA in Mesa and is quick to show customers the safety feature his family has come to rely on. “I don’t think it’s on a lot of people’s minds, but there are some educated buyers out there that come in with wanting that specific feature or asking about it,” Cox said. All 2023 Kias come standard with rear occupancy alerts, like the one in Payj’s vehicle. The company’s new three row SUVs have occupant detection technology, too. “The rear occupancy alert that is standard on all of our vehicles will pop up on this screen when you get out,” Cox said. “The second feature that’s available is your second alert operation.”

Cox showed us how it works. We turned off the SUV and got out of it while Payj and Carter stayed inside the vehicle. James locked the doors, and within seconds, the horn began beeping.

Dr. Emily Thomas, the manager of auto safety at the Consumer Reports auto test center, says end of trip reminders are becoming more common in vehicles, but systems that sense occupants remain rare. “There’s some progress,” she said. “Right now on vehicles in the U.S. in production, you will find this type of technology in some Hyundai, Kia and Genesis vehicles, and they have varying technologies. They have ultrasonic sensors that can detect movement, but it has to be on the sort of larger scale. And then Genesis has also incorporated these radar sensors, and what they allow for is to detect finer motions, physiological type motions, such as the rise and fall of chest from breathing.”

With Arizona summer temperatures in full swing, advocates are raising awareness about the dangers of hot cars and urging parents not to leave kids behind.

Auto makers have voluntarily agreed to make end of trip reminders standard on virtually all vehicles by 2025. In the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Congress included a mandate requiring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to enact safety standards to prevent hot car tragedies. NHTSA’s final rule is due in November. The current proposal would only require an auditory and visual alert when the vehicle is turned off.

In a statement, NHTSA told On Your Side it will “conduct studies on the potential retrofitting of existing passenger motor vehicles with rear-seat alert systems.” The agency also said “NHTSA is continuing to identify and test rear seat occupant detection systems as they become available.”

“The struggle is not everybody can go out and buy a new car, so what do you do if you can’t? What can you do to prevent these tragedies in your own life?” Thomas said. “There are some car seat options that have integrated technology. The Evenflo brand has their SensorSafe chest clip and this works with your phone and will notify you if the chest clip is still buckled after you’ve exited the vehicle.”

With or without technology in your vehicle, safety advocates say it is critical to check the back seat every time you walk away from the car. As an extra reminder to look before you lock, place your purse, laptop or phone in the backseat.

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