Children In America Are Still Dying Inside Hot Cars

But why? And what can we do about it?

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Starting August 31, Ohio citizens who take action to rescue a child from a sweltering car will be protected by the law. The state’s new “Good Samaritan” legislation offers civil immunity for damages caused by forcible entry when a child is believed to be in imminent danger. The law, sponsored by Senators Jim Hughes and Frank LaRose, was signed by Governor John Kasich in May.

Ohio now joins Missouri in enacting immunity laws during 2016. Similar legislation is also set to be proposed in Pennsylvania.  

This summer has been a particularly tragic one for vehicular heatstroke. Four children died over the July 22-24 weekend from being left in hot cars. Last week, twin 15-month old girls succumbed to hyperthermia after being locked inside an SUV in western Georgia. According to Jan Null, a meteorologist at San Jose State University, that makes more than two dozen such deaths in U.S. this year—nearly twice the amount at this time last year. Since 1990, on average, one child has died every nine days during the summer suffering inside a hot car. Over that sixteen-year span, the total number of fatalities is estimated at 755. 

That number is staggering, as is the lack of legislation. Besides Ohio and Missouri, only eight other states (Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin) have laws protecting citizens acting in good-faith from being sued. Child/Car Good Samaritan bills have been proposed in Connecticut, Georgia, New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina, but are not yet passed. Maryland has withdrawn its proposed legislation.

Mostly, you wonder why anybody should have to free a child from a hot car in the first place. Gene Weingarten’s heartbreaking (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) investigation of the phenomena for the Washington Post found that outright negligence is the exception, not the rule. Only 13 percent of cases involve a child knowingly left inside a car; by and large, parents and caregivers simply forget their kids are present, for a number of reasons. Debating legal culpability doesn’t do much ex post facto; pragmatically, the issue is that children sweltering to death inside cars isn’t specific to cultural or socioeconomic circumstance. That makes prevention through traditional means, targeted PSAs and awareness campaigns, extremely difficult.

But airbags and seatbelts both use integrated in-seat weight sensors. Every modern vehicle has an interior thermostat. Automated cabin air recirculation, smart key fobs, and siren-type alarm systems are all things. Considering the rate of progress, and that cars are now largely capable of operating autonomously, the total lack of technological innovation to prevent child heatstroke is pretty unsettling. The old adage, that cars can never be smarter than people are stupid, might be true. That doesn’t mean the machine can’t try.