Bill would require warning for children left in hot cars as number of deaths rises

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As summer temperatures rise, car safety advocacy groups hoping to draw attention to hot car deaths will be aided by a bill intended to equip new vehicles with technology that detects sleeping children in hot cars.

The HOT CARS Act of 2019, which was recently introduced in the House, would require an audible vehicle warning that would alert drivers to someone in the back seat if the engine is turned off.

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who's also a contender in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary race for president, introduced the bill. A similar bill that was introduced in Congress in 2017 failed.

"No child should endure the tragedy of dying while trapped in a hot vehicle," he said. "The unfortunate reality is that even good, loving and attentive parents can get distracted."

(More: 3-month-old girl dies after being left in hot car near Rose Hill)

Co-sponsors of the bill include Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., introduced a similar companion bill in the Senate in May 2019.

Nationwide, Texas comes in first with the most child vehicular heatstroke fatalities, followed by Florida with 93 deaths and California with 58, according to KidsandCars.org.

This year alone, according to a San Jose State University project, 16 children have died of vehicular heat strokes. Fifty-two children died from the same cause in 2018. These are all deaths that car safety advocates say are entirely preventable.

(More: Kansas law protects those saving kids, animals in hot cars)

"You can't buy a car today that doesn't remind you to turn off your head lights or not to forget your cellphone," said Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsAndCars.org. "But you can't have technology that says don't forget to check on your baby?"

Fennell was assaulted, robbed and left for dead with her husband days before Halloween in 1995 near her San Francisco home. Masked robbers ordered the couple at gunpoint into the trunk of their car and then they were driven to the middle of nowhere late at night. In the car was the couple's 9-month-old son who they feared would be taken.

While locked in that trunk, she struggled to find the tool that would allow her to open the trunk of her car and escape, and -- by what Fennell describes as "divine" intervention -- she eventually found it. They drove away from the scene only to find their son sitting in his car seat by their driveway.

Since then, Fennell has played a critical role in guiding the federal regulatory process for various car safety mechanisms, and now focuses on preventing hot car deaths.

"As a country, we are failing our children each day because this effective technology is not included as standard equipment in every vehicle," she said. "What are we waiting for? How many more children have to die?"

When a child is left behind in a hot vehicle, it takes only minutes for their core body temperature to rise dangerously high, according to information from KidsandCars.org. Children have even died in hot cars on days where the outside temperature was in the 50s.

While car safety advocates are calling for legislation, the auto industry is asking for a public awareness campaign to educate people to the dangers of forgetting children in a hot car.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers says it would take nearly two decades for any new child car safety technology to reach every passenger vehicles already on the road today.

"The loss of any life is tragic, and greater public awareness and vigilance are absolutely crucial to help save young lives, right now, this week," the organization said in a statement. "The alliance will carefully review any legislative proposals keeping in mind that fewer than 13 percent of new car buyers have a child 6 years old or younger."

But parents who’ve lost a child due to a hot car death say public awareness isn’t nearly enough to saves lives this summer and beyond.

(MORE: Mom arrested after 1-year-old daughter dies in hot car: Prosecutor)

Miles Harrison thought his day was off to a great start as he went through his typical morning work routine, when a coworker asked him if there was a doll sitting in his car. He reflected on the moment that he realized he forgot his son in his car during emotional testimony before members of Congress in May.

"I ripped open the car door, pulled him from the car seat and ran into the office with him in my arms screaming and crying," he recalled. "It was too late. Knowing that a simple chime could have saved my son's life is heartbreaking."

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