Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

How Do We Ensure Kids Aren't Left in Stifling Cars?

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

How Do We Ensure Kids Aren't Left in Stifling Cars?

Article excerpt

As temperatures shoot past 90 degrees, it might be hard to comprehend how a parent might leave an infant to roast in a car, as one mother did in Hackensack recently, but the grim facts suggest that it happens all too often: 651 deaths nationally in the past 17 1/2 years, including one in Missouri and two in Texas so far this month alone.

One reason is just as surprising: the air bag.

According to a San Francisco State University study, 14 kids died of heat stroke in the U.S. while strapped in cars from 1990 to 1992, but the number rose nearly tenfold from 2008 to 2010 after federal safety standards required children to be placed in special seats in the back to avoid injury from powerful front-seat air bags in a crash.

Since little kids have been consigned to back-seat restraints, they seldom die in crashes. But this front-seat benefit has unleashed an unintended rear-seat liability: Heat stroke began claiming tots left strapped in the back of parked cars.

The reason: Too often, a caregiver -- usually busy moms and dads - - overlooked their sleeping children upon exiting their cars on warm days when temperatures inside cars can top a lethal 120 degrees in less than 20 minutes.

You would think the industry that developed buzzers reminding us to buckle up and dashboard lights urging us to replace our batteries would have found a way to address this problem.

"Somehow, we seem to be more concerned about a dead battery than a dead baby," said Janette Fennell, who heads KidsAndCars.org, the child-safety group that has been pressing for comparable warnings.

Fennell's volunteer non-profit group has been calling for regulations for more than a decade. On July 30 -- the same hot day that a Bergen County sheriff's officer smashed a car window and pulled a 2-year-old boy to safety -- Fennell and grieving parents from Florida to California appealed to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to make good on a 2012 congressional directive authorizing the agency to find technical solutions to the problem that took their children's lives.

But a day later, at an event outside Washington, D.C., to highlight the risks of leaving children in hot cars, the agency's new director told reporters, "Not right now."

Instead of government mandates, Mark Rosekind reiterated past NHTSA policies favoring parental vigilance, including techniques such as leaving a toy in the front seat or a cellphone in the back seat to ensure that drivers "look before they leave" their vehicles. Relying on laws would require a lengthy regulatory process, said the director, and the number of lives saved would likely be small, especially since the number has declined lately. As for technology, agency reviews suggested that sophisticated, electronic warnings have not yet matured sufficiently to be practical, he added.

For Fennell and the parents whose children died in stifling cars, this announcement would have been a crushing disappointment had it not been for a surprise joint announcement made in Arkansas and Ohio eight days earlier. …

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