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Devices can't save babies in hot cars, agency warns

(Updated, July 31. Clarification: The researchers reviewed every product and thoroughly tested three devices)

Special seats and other devices designed to help prevent parents from accidentally leaving babies and toddlers behind in cars don’t work well, a team of experts said on Monday. They said parents shouldn’t rely on them to keep children safe.

Their review of 18 commercial devices, including systems integrated into a car, shows none works well enough to rely on.

“While these devices are very well-intended, none of them are a full or complete solution for making sure a parent never leaves a baby behind in a hot car,” David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), told reporters in a conference call.

Instead, parents need to “layer” in other behaviors, such as leaving a purse or briefcase in the back seat,  to make sure they don’t leave a child to die in a hot car, they advised.

It’s a nightmare scenario – a parent returns to his or her car after a day at work or even a short time running errands to find an unconscious child strapped into the car seat. Most times, the parent thought he or she dropped the child off with a caregiver, or left the child with someone else. Even on a relatively cool day, the temperatures in a car can soar, and babies have died in as little as an hour.

NHTSA says 527 children have died of heat stroke after being left in cars since 1998, or about 38 every year. “In 2011, 33 such cases were reported,” NHTSA said in a statement, citing Jan Null of San Francisco State University, who tracks the reports.

“We aren’t only talking about the 98 degree day when you leave your child for eight hours while you are at work,” said Dr. Kristy Arbogast of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who led the research. “This can happen very quickly.”

Parents have been alerted by news reports of some of the cases, and want some help in protecting their children. “There has been a recent rise in demand for technologies to prevent these deaths by reminding the caregiver that the child is in the car, as about half of these children have inadvertently been forgotten,” the report reads.

Arbogast and colleagues reviewed every product they could find: pads that sense if a child is in his or her carseat; devices that detect whether the seatbelt is buckled; chest clips that attach to the restraint; sensors that can tell if the back door was opened; and alarms that remind parents to check. They thoroughly tested three of the devices.

“The devices were inconsistent and unreliable in their performance,” they wrote in their report, commissioned by NHTSA and released on Monday.

“They often required adjusting of the position of the child within the child restraint, the distance to activation varied across trials and scenarios and they experienced continual synching/unsynching during use,” they added.

Sometimes a cellphone interfered with the device, and spilled juice or milk could knock some out completely. “In sum, the devices require considerable effort from the parent/caregiver to ensure smooth operation and often that operation is not consistent,” Arbogast’s team concluded. “None directly address the root cause of the hot environment that led to the potential for heat stroke.”

Many relied on an alarm that was on the car’s key fob and that worried Arbogast. “What if my husband was taking the child and I forget to give him the key fob?” she asked.

“Most important, it should be noted that these devices which integrate into a child restraint would not be applicable in scenarios where the child is playing and gets locked in the vehicle (30 percent of fatalities) or in a scenario where the parent/caregiver intentionally leaves the child in the vehicle (17 percent of fatalities),” the report notes.

“If a parent thinks they might want to purchase these devices, that’s fine,” Strickland said. But in that case, parents need to do other things, too, to keep their children safe.

They include:

  • Leaving a teddy bear or other toy in the front seat as a reminder.
  • Putting the parent’s purse or briefcase in the back seat, forcing the driver to open the back door and see the child.
  • Setting an alarm on the cellphone to remind a parent to check on the child’s location.
  • Having a routine with the child’s caregiver. “If it is well-established that when your child shows up in the morning, if they don’t show up within 10 minutes of that time the daycare provider calls you or sends a text,” Arbogast suggested.

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A Sugarland, Texas, family mourns the loss of a 7-month-old boy, after the father left the child in the car. KPRC's Nefertiti Jaquez reports.