1,000 kids have died inside hot cars in the U.S. since 1990; could this tech prevent more deaths?

Weather & Traffic In-Depth

AUSTIN (KXAN) — This past July saw a sad milestone — 1,000 children have reportedly died inside of a hot car since 1990, according to the nonprofit Kids and Car Safety.

“Those are just the cases we’re able to document,” said Kids and Car Safety Director Amber Rollins. “Education and awareness of these tragedies are at an all-time high, and yet the number of children dying continues to trend upward.”

For more than 20 years, Kids and Car Safety has been trying to pass the Hot Cars Act, a national law that would require automakers to install detection technology in all new vehicles.

“So a system that can actually use radar, lidar, motion-sensing technology to detect a living breathing being and let someone know they’re in danger,” Rollins explained.

What is people detection technology?

Israeli-based Vayyar Imaging is one manufacturer of the technology. They developed their tech, which fits on a square piece of metal the size of a business card, to detect breast cancer. It uses a radar array made of tiny antennae to analyze an area, like a car, for people and objects.

Vayyar’s head of automotive Ian Podkamien said it can also detect the position people are in while inside the car. The radar system is able to visualize movement as well, using a bunch of dots on a screen.

“The points resemble a human body. Head, torso, legs. When he leans forward, you see that it actually follows his shape,” Podkamien said.

One of the advantages of the product, Podkamien said, is it affords privacy to people in the vehicle in a way a bunch of cameras wouldn’t.

“It’s imaging without visualization. You (don’t) see any face there. The granularity (is) high enough to tell difference between infants and adults. You have enough information, without visualization,” he said.

Some automakers, like Kia and Hundai, are already including detection technology in new models, and Podkamien said Vayyar is speaking with automakers about installing their radar system in new vehicles.

Other options for detecting children in hot cars

Other automakers are taking a different approach. Dings and notifications reminding drivers they opened the back door at some point during their trip.

“The problem with that technology,” Rollins said, “is that it will not protect the 26% of children who die in hot cars and got in on their own and became trapped.”

It could easily become ignored, she said.

“If you put a Cheeto on your backseat and you open the back door to put it there, you’re going to get a reminder. If you hear it all the time and not when you need it, it becomes another alarm we ignore when our cars get turned on and turned off,” she said.

Texas leads the nation in hot car deaths

The first death of a child in a hot car this year occurred in April in Tomball, Texas. 144 children have died in the state since 1990, by far the most in the country. On average, 39 children die each year after being left in a hot car.

According to Rollins, instances when kids are left in cars aren’t always intentional. 55% of children who died were unknowingly left in a vehicle and 26% got into the vehicle without their parents’ knowledge. Only 14% were left in a vehicle intentionally. Rollins says these accidents are why detection technology is needed.

Trying to pass the Hot Cars Act

There have been several attempts over the years to pass the Hot Cars Act. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a version of the Act in 2017, 2019 and earlier this year. The Senate crushed the Act in 2017 and 2019. The Senate has supported notification technology in the past. The 2021 Senate Infrastructure Bill, which passed last week, does not include a version of the Hot Cars Act.

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