Devices to Prevent Child Heat Deaths Unreliable, NHTSA Says

Aftermarket devices intended to cut the number of heat-stroke deaths among children left in cars aren’t reliable enough to substitute for other measures parents can take, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.

The technologies, which include sensors to detect children left in hot cars, are prone to false alarms and are difficult to install correctly, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said on a conference call with reporters today.

“While we feel these devices are very well-intended, we don’t think they can be used as the only countermeasure to make sure that you don’t forget your child behind in a car,” Strickland said.

Heat stroke is the leading cause of non-crash vehicle- related deaths in the U.S. for children under 14. About 500 children died after being left unattended in vehicles between 1998 and 2009, according to San Francisco State University research. After reaching 49 fatalities in 2010, the number decreased to 33 last year, Strickland said.

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia today released the results of a study on the effectiveness of child-detecting technology in conjunction with NHTSA. Limitations included inconsistency in arming sensitivity, potential interference from cars’ electronic systems, short-circuits that can be caused by liquid spills, and disarming when children shift out of position, said Kristy Arbogast, a researcher with the hospital.

Device Defects

Devices on the market include the ChildMinder Smart Pad System that costs about $70, plus installation. Some of the devices detect pressure on car seats and can sound an alarm if the vehicle is locked or the key is removed from the ignition while the car seat is occupied. Strickland said he wasn’t aware of an automaker that offers a child-detection system as a factory-installed option.

Safety technologies, especially those intended to protect children, have to be virtually free of defects, Strickland said. The devices available to consumers at this stage don’t meet that standard, he said.

NHTSA advises that parents should continue to take children out of cars if they leave a vehicle, even if the windows are partially open or the air conditioner is on. Parents can ask childcare providers to call if children don’t arrive as expected. Helpful reminders can include placing a mobile phone, purse or briefcase in the back seat.

The agency is running radio and online advertisements under the theme: “Where’s baby? Look before you lock.”

Temperatures can rise above 110 degrees inside a closed car even when it’s in the 60s outside, increasing almost 20 degrees within the first 10 minutes, according to NHTSA.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Plungis in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at

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