On Rear Seat Occupant Alert Systems, and How They Can Save Lives

On Rear Seat Occupant Alert Systems, and How They Can Save Lives

In late July 2019, Juan Rodriguez, a New York father was charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide for the deaths of his twin babies after leaving them for hours in a hot car. Mr. Rodriguez drove to work Friday morning and forgot to drop off his pair of 1-year-olds at daycare. It wasn’t until that afternoon that Rodriguez says he discovered his children were still strapped in their carseats in the backseat. Mr. Rodriguez was on the side of the road screaming, “I killed my babies!”

Mr. Rodriguez’s tragedy is an all too common occurrence in the United States. In 2018, 52 children died when they were left behind or inadvertently trapped in a parked car, according to data compiled by Kidsandcars.org. This epidemic has increased substantially over the last decade, as parents are increasing putting their young children in the rear of the vehicle to the danger associated with front and side impact air bags. Now more than ever, it is much easier to simply fail to notice a child in the backseat when exiting a car, especially when they are in a rear facing car seat.

This life-ending mistake was highlighted back in 2009 by the Washington Post, which stated in its Pulitzer Prize-winning feature on hot car deaths:

“When it happens to young children, the facts are often the same: An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just . . . forgets a child is in the car,” wrote Gene Weingarten. He emphasized how these cases cut across lines of class, age, ethnicity, and gender. Often, these deaths happen because of “a combination of stress, emotion, lack of sleep and change in routine.” 

Sadly, as with many fatal incidents in this country, we know a simple, practical way to prevent these cases: manufacturing cars with back seat sensors. But efforts to pass bills requiring such sensors have failed, in part because of auto lobby resistance. As the Times reported this summer, groups opposing such legislation, including the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies on behalf of a dozen major car companies, “have long said that education is enough.”

Automotive manufacturers have known for years that a simply fix would prevent these unnecessary deaths but have fought the advancement of this safety feature. This failure, combined with the available technology, is sufficient grounds for liability in the death of a child.

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