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Devices to Prevent Child Heat Deaths Unreliable, NHTSA Says

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July 30 (Bloomberg) -- Aftermarket devices intended to prevent 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 a study on the effectiveness of child-detecting technology in conjunction with NHTSA. Limitations included inconsistency in arming sensitivity, potential interference from mobile phones and other 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.

‘Considerable Effort’

“The devices required considerable effort from the parent to ensure smooth operation,” Arbogast said. “Some of the devices turned on and off or beeped during the drive. We’re concerned about the frustration and source of distraction this might lead to.”

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.

Baby Alert International, the Dallas-based company that make the ChildMinder Smart Pad and one other system evaluated in the study, didn’t immediately return a telephone message and an e-mail seeking comment.

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.

Remove Children

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.”

“Leaving a child in a vehicle can happen to even the most vigilant parent when they’re distracted and off their normal routine,” said Arbogast of Children’s Hospital.

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.

Reggie McKinnon of Cape Coral, Florida, told reporters about the death of his 17-month-old daughter, Payton, after driving her to a doctor’s appointment in March 2010 on a 70-degree day. He returned to a busy afternoon of work and went to get Payton and his other two daughters at the end of the day.

“To my horror, I realized Payton was still in her car seat,” McKinnon said. “I heard someone screaming. It was me. The rest is just a blur.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Plungis in Washington at jplungis@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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