In the last half of September, as the U.S. Southeast sweltered under record high temperatures, six children died of heatstroke after being left in hot cars, all in the southern half of the country.
Janette Fennell doesn’t know if the heat wave played a role in that spate of deaths. But she and other car safety advocates say similarities exist among these deaths, as do lessons that could prevent them from happening in other families.
“Thinking it can’t happen to you is the biggest mistake you can make,” said Fennell, founder of Kids and Cars, a group that advocates for fixes to child-related car safety issues.
One Oxford family is part of September’s grim statistics. Oxford police said Wednesday that they aren’t seeking charges against Nathan Daniel Jordan, 45, whose infant son died after being left in a car at Sunny King Honda for three hours and 26 minutes on Sept. 27. The high that day was 95 degrees. The infant’s twin sister, also in the car, was hospitalized. Even though police made no arrest, the case has been referred to a grand jury for review.
It’s not Calhoun County’s first tragedy of this sort. In 2014, an Anniston resident pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide after her 4-month-old child died in a hot car. That mom, a soldier assigned to the National Guard, had an exemplary service record and was just returning to work after maternity leave.
Fennell said rage and blame typically follow a hot-car death, particularly among commenters on social media.
“The typical response is, ‘how could you forget your child?’” she said.
But Fennell says parents in these cases are often people with plenty of professional responsibility and no prior run-ins with the law. Stress, lack of sleep, and a change in routine can easily trick someone’s brain into believing they’ve dropped off a child at daycare, when in fact the child is still in the back seat.
“Our brains are not equipped to handle all the tasks we’re given,” she said.
Out of sight, in danger
According to Fennell, hot-car deaths began to rise in the 1990s, when auto safety experts realized that riding in the front seat was dangerous for small passengers. When car seats moved to the back, and then in many cases became rear-facing, children were out of sight and sometimes out of mind.
She notes that 2018 was the worst year for hot-car deaths, with 53 people — kids or adults with disabilities — dead of heatstroke from sitting in a hot car. So far this year, there have been 48 hot-car deaths.
“It’s possible this hot spell has extended the season,” said Jan Null, a San Jose State University meteorology professor. Null began counting hot-car deaths, largely through news reports, several years ago after finding that no one else had collected the data.
Null is reluctant to read too much, yet, into the recent rise in the numbers. The past two years are well above the average death toll of 38, he said, but it’s too early to say the recent spike is meaningful.
Other trends, though, are clearer. Thursday and Friday are the top days for heatstroke death.
“There’s a straight line up from Monday through Friday,” he said. “As the workweek goes on, you see more deaths. Are people making mistakes because they’re more tired?”
Dads are the parent on duty in a third of forgotten-child deaths, Null’s numbers show. In 28 percent of cases, it’s the mother and in 11 percent it’s both. Grandparents, other relatives and childcare workers round out the numbers.
Bans and tech
At least 20 states have laws on the books to punish people who leave kids in cars unattended, but the per-capita death rate for in-car heatstroke is generally higher in the South and Southwest. Alabama is among the top 10, and has a ban on leaving children in cars.
Car safety advocates are looking for a different kind of legislative action. Fennell said she’s been in contact with both of Alabama’s U.S. senators – Republican Richard Shelby and Democrat Doug Jones – to push for the Hot Cars Act, a bill that would require technology in all new cars that would detect a child in the back seat and warn a driver if a child is left in a car after the driver leaves.
Twenty automakers last month signed a pledge to voluntarily begin installing reminder systems by 2024.
That subject may hit particularly close to home for automaker Honda. The September hot car death in Oxford took place at a Honda dealership and involved a Honda vehicle that appeared to be an SUV or minivan. Honda’s plant in Lincoln builds the company’s Odyssey minivan and Pilot and Passport SUVs.
Honda spokesman Chris Martin said that while the company has signed on to the auto industry agreement, Honda already plans to begin installing a detection system on most of its models by 2022.
Asked why that hasn’t happened already, Martin noted that cars contain more computer technology than they once did.
“It’s one of those things that has become more technologically available,” Martin said. He said the Honda safety system would revolve around “door logic.” If a driver opens a back seat door before entering the car, the center console screen will give them a warning to check the back seat when they stop – and an alarm on the key fob will alert the driver if they walk away without reopening the door.
Asked if that solution is basically a reprogramming of technologies that already exist on cars, Martin said the change would be a “function of the logic” in the car’s systems.
Fennell’s group wants more, including options such as motion-detection systems to spot kids in cars.
“It’s just door-sequencing,” Fennell said of the industry’s proposed solution. “It doesn’t do anything to detect a child who got into a vehicle on their own, for instance.”
Another Alabama automaker, Hyundai, plans to make “door logic” standard on most of its cars by 2022, according to statements emailed by a company spokesman. Two models, the Santa Fe and the Palisade, already have it, and there are plans to make a motion-detection system available as an option on most models in the future.
Automakers and car-safety advocates alike fret about whether warning systems will be enough. There’s always a chance that a busy parent will mentally screen out computerized alerts.
“That is a challenge,” Martin said. “Will this work for everybody?”