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How to Avoid Leaving a Child or Pet in a Vehicle

Driver awareness, rear-occupant-alert technologies address the problem of children, pets left in vehicles 

Children left in the backseat of a vehicle in extreme hot or cold conditions by forgetful drivers have been a problem for decades, and the numbers are on the rise. Auto manufacturers are addressing the problem with sophisticated rear-occupant-alert technologies, but driver awareness is essential to address the problem.

There’s little room for error because a child’s health situation can deteriorate quickly. A car can heat up 20 degrees in only 10 minutes, making children particularly vulnerable because their bodies heat up five times faster than an adult’s. 

“In the very young, the central nervous system is not fully developed,” according to the Mayo Clinic, “which makes your body less able to cope with changes in body temperature,” and they have difficulty remaining hydrated. “In 2018, 53 children (left in hot cars) lost their lives -- the most in more than 20 years,” reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

While accounts of children dying hot vehicles are most common, cold weather can be equally harmful. “Just like a child’s body can heat to a deadly temperature in a matter of minutes, the reverse effect can happen in the cold,” says Sharon Rengers, R.N., Norton Children’s Prevention & Wellness. “Because of their smaller body mass, young children are more prone to heat loss and hypothermia than adults. Kids also have less fat, which can help serve as protective insulation.”

`Forgotten Baby Syndrome’

A NHTSA study on vehicular heatstroke cases from 1998 to 2018 revealed that more than half of the time it was because an adult had forgotten about the child. “Among the trends discovered in these incidents: About 44 percent of the time the caregiver meant to drop the child off at daycare or preschool, and the end of the workweek -- Thursdays and Fridays -- saw the highest number of deaths.”

“How could this happen? Were those parents intoxicated, mentally ill, or just grossly negligent?” is a question addressed by pediatrician Sara Connolly in a article. Connolly says the term for situations where parents accidently leave a baby or young child in a locked car is “Forgotten Baby Syndrome.”

She refers to an explanation of FBS by David Diamond, professor of psychology, molecular pharmacology and physiology: “The motor memory part of our brain competes against the cognitive part of the brain, overruling it. In this example, that would mean leaving work with the intent of stopping at the store and then finding yourself in your garage having forgotten that you intended to make a stop elsewhere.”

In the case of FBS, two things often happen, Connolly says. “First, a caregiver varies from their normal routine. For example, a caregiver that does not usually transport a child to daycare may do so on this day. They then drive to work as normal, the motor cortex out-thinking the cognitive brain and leading the parent to completely forget their child is in the back. They go about their day with no recollection of their intent to drop a child off and looking forward to seeing the child in the evening.”

Preventing these tragedies, says Connolly, requires the driver to first have to think about them. “Know that this can happen to anyone and be proactive each time a child is transported.”

NHTSA warns drivers to “Always look before you lock,” and gives the following tips: 1. Always check the back seats of your vehicle before you lock it and walk away; 2. Keep a stuffed animal or other mementos in your child’s car seat when it’s empty, and move it to the front seat as a visual reminder when your child is in the back seat; and 3. If someone else is driving your child, or your daily routine has been altered, always check to make sure your child has arrived safely.

Keeping a vehicle locked and keys out of reach of children also are important, reports NHTSA, because nearly three in 10 heatstroke deaths happen when an unattended child gains access to a vehicle. Dogs left unattended in hot cars is another serious issue. They suffer in hot conditions because they lack the predominant sweat glands that humans have and are mostly limited to panting to rid of heat.

Rear-occupant-alert technologies

Automobile manufacturers are contributing to the prevention of children and pets being left in the rear seat with new warning technologies. Nissan is a pioneer of these reminder systems with its Rear Door Alert, available on selected cars, SUVs and trucks. 

The push to create the RDA was by Elsa Foley, an industrial engineer and mother of two young children, and Marlene Mendoza, a mechanical engineer and mother of three. Their interest in the project was spurred by an incident experienced by Mendoza.

"We pushed each other along and knew we were on the right track one morning when Marlene discovered she had left a pan of lasagna in the backseat of her car one night after coming home after a long day at the office," says Foley. "The worst thing was the car smelled for days, but it made me ask myself: 'What if that had been something else back there?' "

RDA monitors the rear door switches to detect their open/closed status prior to and after a trip, reports Nissan. If the system detects that a rear door was opened/closed prior to a trip, but then was not re-opened again after the trip was completed, given the vehicle was put in park and the ignition cycled off, the system responds with a series of notifications, starting with a display in the instrument panel and progressing to subtle but distinctive chirps of the horn.

Hyundai recently unveiled its Rear Occupant Alert as part of its Hyundai SmartSense technologies. Offered in its 2020 Santa Fe and Palisade models, ROA utilizes overhead ultrasonic sensors to monitor the backseat area and detect movement.

“If you have a baby or a dog in the rear seats and were really busy running into your house,” says Ariel Garcia-Linares, Hyundai spokesman. “You locked your car and you locked your pet in the rear seats -- the car will start honking and the lights flashing. Let’s say you were distracted, had earplugs and was listening to music. Through Blue Link you will start getting text messages and emails to remind you – ‘Hey, don’t forget to check the rear seats because you might have left something in the back.’” 

General Motors offers the Rear Seat Reminder on selected Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC models. RSR monitors the rear doors and activates when a rear door is opened and closed up to 10 minutes before the vehicle is started or while its running. When activated, the vehicle sounds five chimes and displays a message in the driver information center that reads “Rear Seat Reminder / Look in Rear Seat” the next time the vehicle is turned off.

“This new technology developed by General Motors will give busy parents and caregivers the important reminder to always check the backseat,” says Kate Carr, president and CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide. 

“The safest way to protect a child from heatstroke is to never leave a child unattended in a vehicle,” Carr says, “and features like Rear Seat Reminder, coupled with continued public education, can help combat this preventable tragedy.”