Congress Considers Mandating Rear Seat Child Alerts

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

U.S. lawmakers are considering legislation that would require automakers to install technology on all new vehicles that would alert drivers to check for children before exiting a vehicle. If passed, the bill would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to write new rules within two years mandating the introduction of “a distinct auditory and visual alert” to remind drivers to check the back seat. It also calls for a study to assess the feasibility of retrofitting older vehicles with the system.

Lawmakers claim that more than 800 U.S. children have died from heatstroke over the last two decades as a result of being left unattended inside an automobile.

While that averages out to less than the number of U.S. citizens killed by lightning strikes every year, media attention makes these incidents look more prevalent than they actually are. A Florida daycare owner made national news earlier this week after being arrested for leaving an infant in a hot van. However, unlike most lightning strikes, automotive heatstroke is entirely preventable and could be curbed by new safety technologies.

According to Reuters, the proposal is sponsored by a number of lawmakers including Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS), Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL).

Schakowsky said 48 children perished as a result of heat stroke in cars in 2018. “In the vast majority of those cases, the adult did not realize the child was inside the car. It’s not enough to educate parents about the risks,” she said, adding that most new cars alert drivers when they’ve left their keys in the vehicle and suggesting the same should be true “if you leave a child in the car.”

While education should always be the public’s first line of defense, some cars already do possess systems that can help. General Motors introduced rear-seat reminders in 2016. While the system doesn’t explicitly check for children, it does monitor the vehicle’s rear doors and alerts the driver to check the back seat. The feature activates whenever a rear door is opened and closed within 10 minutes before the vehicle is started, or if they are opened and closed while the vehicle is already running. When the vehicle is turned off after a door activation, the system sounds five audible chimes and a display message reminder drivers to “Look in Rear Seat.”

Nissan utilizes a similar system and Hyundai later introduced one that uses sensors to detect movement in the rear seat, honking the horn or even pushing notifications to a person’s phone via its Blue Link connected-car system as a warning.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has said it will “carefully review any legislative proposals keeping in mind that fewer than 13 [percent] of new car buyers have a child six years old or younger.” It also said that it takes roughly two decades for new automotive technologies to reach most passenger vehicles, adding, “Greater public awareness saves live today.”

[Image: General Motors]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Brn Brn on May 24, 2019

    I don't have kids.

    • See 2 previous
    • APaGttH APaGttH on May 27, 2019

      @Get Necked Ya Dumb Nigger! I wasn’t comparing packages to people. There is this thing called Google, go read some owner’s manuals of vehicles currently equipped with these systems. The systems are positioned as a reminder for humans, pets, or packages. Take your outrage to Detroit, Munich and Tokyo lawyers and their contracted technical writers. Tool.

  • Jimmyhonda1992 Jimmyhonda1992 on Dec 30, 2020

    The early, "Mike Tyson" passenger airbags have to take some of the blame for this problem. A child in the front seat is less likely to be forgotten, being right beside the driver. Back in the early 1990s, less than 10 kids per year, on average, died in hot cars. Even the infamously hot summer of 1993 only had 14. However, the yearly death toll jumped to 39 by 1998, and has stayed above 30 in every year but two since. The widespread introduction of cell phones has done little to change that; the death toll has fluctuated between about 30-50 in most years for over two decades. In the early 1990s, kids in cars were typically either in the front seat or had two parents and/or siblings, friends, etc in the car with them. If it was just the driver and the child, the kid was typically put in the front. Then, passenger airbags came out, and the federal government mandated that airbags protect an unbelted adult male dummy, 5'9" and 170 lbs, in a 30 mph barrier crash test. There were no regulations on the potential dangers from the airbags themselves, despite decades of testing showing that they could seriously injure or kill children; one study, conducted by Volvo in the 1970s, put baby pigs (roughly the size of a 6 year old child) in close proximity to experimental airbags; IIRC about a third of the pigs were killed. The requirement for the bags to protect some idiot who refused to wear a seat belt meant that most were very overpowered and oversized. Some manufacturers such as Honda and Mercedes-Benz were able to make relatively safe designs; Honda pioneered a deployment method where the bag deploys upward, along the windshield, before curling back toward the occupant. But most early passenger airbags deployed straight at the occupant and would slam into even a properly positioned passenger, to say nothing of one in close proximity to the dash. For an adult, this usually meant some bruising, maybe a broken nose; for a child, the consequences could be dire. But people rationalized it as "it's better to be hurt a little for an airbag to save your life". Not to mention, the overpowered, overly stiff early airbags optimized for unbelted occupants meant they were too firm to ideally protect a belted occupant. Eventually, the federal standards governing unbelted protection were relaxed, and manufacturers started optimizing their airbags not to protect Beavis and Butt-Head but to give ideal protection to belted occupants. "Advanced" airbags, which typically shut off the airbag for children below a certain size (and reduce their inflation force for pre-teens who are large enough to get a deployment) have been federally required for 14 years now, since Sept. 1, 2006 (the '07 model year). I hesitate to recommend putting children back in the front seat. IF you have advanced airbags and put the passenger seat in its full-rearward position, it should be safe. That's ADVANCED - not "depowered" or "second generation" airbags that came out en masse in 1998, but full advanced airbags that can SHUT OFF the airbag if there isn't enough weight on the seat. But can we really trust the general public to follow these rules? What happens when someone, misinterpreting the recommendation and thinking it's safe to put kids back in the front in ALL situations, puts their infant in the front seat of their '96 Dodge Caravan - a vehicle that has a passenger airbag design so dangerous that it borders on criminal negligence even by the standards of 25 years ago? And what about the laws in some states that require children to sit in the back; some of these laws make no difference between a deactivated advanced airbag working as designed and an old airbomb. As recently as 2019, a passenger airbag in a '90s Dodge Neon killed a 4 year old in Utah. I think it should go without saying that parents should always double check to make sure that no kids are left in a hot car. And these sensors in the back seat are a good idea. But children moving back to the front seat, like they did until the early 1990s, may not be as far off as you think.

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