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March 09, 2009

Comments

"How would you explain to yourself, let alone to others, that you have deliberately tried to block a measure that would prevent infants and toddlers from being cooked alive in cars?"

I have confidence Brett B. can explain that this should be an option, and no one, such as folks who expect never to transport children, should be forced against their will to pay for it.

If I'm wrong, Brett, my apologies, and please do correct me.

I know someone this happened to. A girl who used to babysit my kids years ago accidently left her infant in the car a2 years ago. The baby died. I knew her well and am completely convinced it was an accident.

In the case I know of her morning routine was disrupted and she had an urgent work assignment ahead of her. Normally her routine was to drive the baby to a daycare giver in a pickup truck and then go to work. The car seat was in the front seat of the pickup. On this day, she had to use her husband's car where the car seat was in the rear. Also, she stopped somewhere else for a few minutes before she went to the daycare provider. The intermediate destination didn't required her to get out of the car. Somehow, when she was driving away from the intermediate destination, she completely forgot the baby and daycare provider and went to work. The baby was behind her, out of sight and apparently quiet. She worked all day and didn't realize her mistake until she came out to the car after work.

Maybe the car manufacturers don't want to get sued when the sensor doesn't work.

Zarquon: the article mentioned that (talking about aftermarket sensors), but what I don't get is: smoke detectors would seem to face the same kinds of problems. The fact that they are not just available, but cheap, suggests that there must be a way to solve liability issues presented by thingos that are supposed to warn you about potentially lethal dangers, and that might malfunction.

I understand this.

Eighteen years ago, when I was staying home with the year-old baby boy, my wife and I decided to place him in home day-care (great day-care Mom) one day a week to give me a break and give him some opportunity to be with other kids.

The first day of day-care, I left him off (it was tough) at 8:00 am in the morning and went grocery shopping for about an hour, loaded my groceries in the trunk of the car, and started the short trek home.

I glanced in the rear-view mirror, and being an absent-minded person, noticed the beautiful kid was not in his car seat, where he had been every day for a year binkied, teddy-beared, and box-juiced.

I froze.

Where had I left him? I pulled the car over to the side of the road and frantically thought, well, Mom's not gonna like this news, among many other horrible thoughts.

Following a U-turn, I went back to the grocery store and went up and down the aisles looking for his honor in every grocery cart like maybe he had just barely escaped being eaten by a dingo .... but where the eff did I leave him?

Back to the car ......... speeding now down some boulevard, probably home to find him chewing on poisonous house-plant leaves, going not know where .. flop sweat ...


......... day care, yeah, day care, this is maybe 12 minutes after discovering his absence ..... back to the daycare Mom's house, faking I'd forgotten something ....
there he is .....

.... now .... University of British Columbia .... he's doing great ...


But it was cold sweat time for Daddy.

I understand how this can happen.


Hey Thullen -- just chiming in to say that I hope all's well with you.

Best -

Life's a hurricane -- but thanks.

It occurs to me that if we had more A) roll-down car windows that worked independently of ignition (remember those?), or B) electric windows that still worked independent of ignition, this might cut down on these types of fatalities. One of my fears is having my car go into a large body of water with me inside and not being able to get out because not a single damn thing in today's automobiles will work if the electricity shorts. Do they still offer manual doors/windows at the dealer these days?

"How would you explain to yourself, let alone to others, that you have deliberately tried to block a measure that would prevent infants and toddlers from being cooked alive in cars?"

Same way they stop any other regulation. They cry, 'This will be unaffordable! Money, money, money!'

Just like when we mandated seatbelts get put into cars, or sulfur scrubbers put in smokestacks, or any number of the little regulations that the government has passed which save thousands of lives every day.

How many children die each year because of this problem, and how much would adding the sensor cost per car?

Even raising this sort of question might sound horribly callous. The regulation in question sounds reasonable (offhand), and the cries of industry that any sort of safety requirements would be overly burdensome are usually best ignored. But cost/benefit analyses should be performed, and just because a regulation would save innocent lives doesn't mean it's a good idea. (If you doubt this, imagine that 10 children die every year because of this problem, and adding the sensors would cost $3000 per new car.)

Hilzoy,

I will take a stab at the arguement against. It is simple cold, utilitarian cost benefit. How many child deaths / injuries would these save, and at what cost?

If there were only a few fatal cases a year and such a device would cost $10,000 per car would you still think it inhuman to argue against making them mandatory? At that price, many people would continue to drive older cars, which not only don't have child detectors, but also are significantly less safe for both the occupants and others on the road. Alternately, for the same cost we could put a $10,000 tax on new cars and use the money to pay for free child seats, improved prenatal health care, more school lunches, repairs to schools, first aid training for day care workers, etc., and save thousands of children's lives.

On the other hand, if the cost was $100 and the event was common, then by all means make them required standard equipment.

Doing cost benefit analysis with safety measures sounds cold, and is no fun. (No I wouldn't want to be that lobbyist, but then again there are lots of jobs I wouldn't want to have) But it is an important part of public policy -- we should increase our spending on health care and safety, yes, but also make sure we are getting the most impact for the money we do spend. Annecdotes, however moving (and I agree, this one is) do not make good policy.

If you doubt this, imagine that 10 children die every year because of this problem, and adding the sensors would cost $3000 per new car.

Yeah, but it's more than ten, and it wouldn't cost that much.

I'm not trying to pin this on car manufacturers, and I'm sure the liability issues are hairy, but it wouldn't cost $3K per car.

While it's obviously a horrific sittuation when it happens, I don't know if requiring sensors is the answer; I think it all depends on the cost of the sensor. 36 children die each year from being left in a hot car. I think the high range of the value that the U.S. gov tends to assign to a human life tops out at about 10 million (different agencies use different figures), so assuming the sensors always prevent death (not necessarily true), I'd say it'd be justified to require them if they cost less than $50 for the life of a car (about 7.5 million cars sold annually, I think). That might be true or it might not. I could easily imagine installing sensors in a car to be significantly more expensive than that, leading to the cost per life saved of being 20 million dollars or more. While this seems callous, it's the only way of deciding where the government should allocate its scarce resources to - clearly it's not workable to just spend an infinite amount of money on anything that would save one life, some price needs to be set.

How would you explain to yourself, let alone to others, that you have deliberately tried to block a measure that would prevent infants and toddlers from being cooked alive in cars?

Economics. A child dying of heat stroke in the back seat of their parent's car is terrible, but it's also very uncommon. According to the article, it happens only about 20 times per year in the whole country. Installing safety devices to prevent it would probably cost tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

It's uncomfortable to say it, but that is unlikely to be the most effective way of spending that much money. It's probably not even the best way of spending that much money even if your goal is to save kids' lives, or even if your goal is to improve child safety in cars. It's perfectly reasonable for car companies and their lobbyists to make that case to Congress.

You do have to read that thing. Lyn Balfour is my idol. I think I would have to just tie a string to the kid every time I got in the car. A string from me to it. Like I had to do with mittens when I was little. Because I'm just the sort of person who would do this.

I should say at the outset: there is some amount of money, per car, that I would think would be excessive. (Just as there is some amount of money I think it would be excessive to spend on virtually any lifesaving device.)

That said: I wouldn't have thought that sensors are all that expensive. Moreover, I would weight this kind of death more heavily than most. It would be unusually dreadful for the kid. But it would also destroy most parents' lives. (Both parents, in different ways, I would think.) Losing your kid in a traffic accident in which you weren't to blame would be horrible beyond description, I would think. Losing your kid in an accident that was your fault would be worse. But forgetting your kid in the back seat and letting him die would have to be even worse than that.

There is nothing the least bit suicidal about me, but when I first heard about one of these stories, I thought: I would seriously, *seriously* consider killing myself.

Stephan, yes they do still have manual windows. And I think you're right that that is a factor; it's not just the airbag thing.

Just a thought, but perhaps it would be more cost effective to mandate that something like this be added to carseats, rather than cars.

To be clear, I mean child safety seats.

Just a thought, but perhaps it would be more cost effective to mandate that something like this be added to carseats, rather than cars.

The problem with that is that child safety seats don't have power, so you'd have to add a battery and get people to charge it and when they forget the battery or forget to charge it (things that are most likely to happen when they need the warning most), the car seat will remain silent because it has no power.

It's uncomfortable to say it, but that is unlikely to be the most effective way of spending that much money. It's probably not even the best way of spending that much money even if your goal is to save kids' lives, or even if your goal is to improve child safety in cars. It's perfectly reasonable for car companies and their lobbyists to make that case to Congress.

I think that's the argument. It's not just a question regarding whether this 100, 200, 500, or 1000 dollars per car is reasonable. It's whether it's reasonable in light of the next best use of the money. You'll might save more lives, short term, by investing that money in other safety features. You might save more lives, long term, by investing that money in better fuel efficiency or cleaner burning engines.

It's tough to sleep sometime when you're confronted the complexity of the no-win situation; the case where you can, at best, mitigate a loss or choose bad over worse. But you have to sleep nonetheless.

Incidentally, I have a three-month old and a three-year old. The one thing that surprised me more than it should have is the incredible reliance that's placed upon you and the enormous number of ways you can accidentally kill your child. If 36 die each year for want of a sensor, how many more die for want of a carseat? There are better uses for this money.

By the way, Hilzoy: Although I partially disagree with your answer, I like your raising this question.

I agree that the car seat is probably the place to implement this type of system. No need for fancy sensors though. Car seats could be manufactured with a digital thermometer and the ability to send a text message. If the thermometer reaches a dangerous level while the seat is still buckled it sends a text to the parent's cell phone. This wouldn't take much power so an in car solar panel could probably suffice.

I could see a role for regulation in mandating free cell network access for such an emergency text, similar to how all cell phones can make 911 calls. I'm agnostic about whether mandating such a system is a good idea. If I were a parent I would be more than willing to pay the $15-50 bucks such a system might cost. However, I would also be afraid that if it were mandated this additional cost might result in fewer people buying car seats and the deaths from that would more than outweighs the lives saved (even if counted triple).

This article was absolutely heartbreaking and brought me to the point of tears. But more than that, I thought it was incredibly well-written: well-researched, comprehensive, the right questions asked in interviews, the science was woven into the overall narrative effectively and well-explained without being overwhelming. I'm pretty cynical and bitter about media and reporting but articles like this remind me what journalism should be all about.

The problem with that is that child safety seats don't have power, so you'd have to add a battery and get people to charge it and when they forget the battery or forget to charge it (things that are most likely to happen when they need the warning most), the car seat will remain silent because it has no power.

While I admit that my education is more of a liberal arts persuasion, I refuse to believe that overcoming your concerns is beyond our engineering acumen here in the 21st century.

I have never left a kid in the car, but I have driven right by one of their schools, destination: work. Fortunately she piped up after a few blocks: "Dad. Did you forget to drop me off?" Panic, followed by a somewhat embarrassed turning-around-and-going-back. If that was my time to forget, I got off lightly.

I tell myself I could never leave one of my children in the car, alone, unable to get out. Fortunately they're both well past the age where I'm in danger of discovering that I'm wrong.

Turb,

Approaching this as an engineering problem, I would observe that you have to open the back door to take a child out of the back seat. More precisely, if you don't open a back door, you might be forgetting your kid.

I have to believe that any car modern enough to have remote locking can sense the opening and closing of its doors. I am not sure (in fact, I doubt) that most cars can sense the buckled/unbuckled state of the rear middle safety belt that usually holds the carseat in place. But if the car had that bit of information, then I should think we could specify a reasonable algorithm in the car's computer to set off the alarm or horn if the sequence of ignition shutoff, front door, back door, and doors locked diverges from the sequence we'd expect.

The way I would implement this almost-zero-cost approach would NOT involve time, temperature, or anything else being sensed. If there was a carseat installed, the car would honk at you before you could walk away. Leaving a kid unattended in a car for even a moment makes no sense to me.

--TP

Ten years ago I worked in a press clipping bureau, and over a fairly short period I noticed the same story repeated I'm thinking five or six times in newspapers from across the country - and I'm actually wondering if it was more like ten times... This wasn't parents and their cars, it was day-care places and their vans. Over and over, the same story: people offloading a bunch of small children - and a quiet one would die.

I have to believe that any car modern enough to have remote locking can sense the opening and closing of its doors.

My car (2006 Honda) has remote locking (a first for me). If I unlock the car but don't open a door right away, it locks itself again. So yes, it certainly seems to keep track of the opening and closing of the doors.

I am not sure (in fact, I doubt) that most cars can sense the buckled/unbuckled state of the rear middle safety belt that usually holds the carseat in place.

Many cars have a latch system that better secures carseats. The belts aren't used. And in most sedans and station wagons the preferred location for a carseat is behind the passenger seat, rather than in the middle.

It seems to me that a proximity senser/alarm attached to both the parent and child would be useful for this and many potential accidents. It probably wouldn't be very expensive to manufacture and would find a large market.

This article was absolutely heartbreaking and brought me to the point of tears. But more than that, I thought it was incredibly well-written: well-researched, comprehensive, the right questions asked in interviews, the science was woven into the overall narrative effectively and well-explained without being overwhelming. I'm pretty cynical and bitter about media and reporting but articles like this remind me what journalism should be all about.

Yeah, that's Gene Weingarten.

He wrote the piece you probably at least heard of about
Joshua Bell being ignored in the subway
. That one got him the Pulitzer. A lot of people hate it. I think it is OK.

Another time, as sort of a joke, he went to the end of the world on the premise that he could dig up a story anywhere. The result is here. You really need to read the whole thing.

And then there's the story of The Great Zucchini. Again, read it to the end.

They're all well researched, comprehensive, everything you said. The LA Times is bankrupt, the papers in Philly are on death watch, McClatchy laid off 1600 people today, and so on.

Where is this sort of reporting going to come from in the future?

From the blogs? I don't think so. I love Hilzoy's writing, but she's never written anything like any of those stories.

Who is going to do it? Who is going to make sure Gene Weingarten keeps getting paid to write these things?

That.. is so awful, I barely have words. I'm horrified to note that the problem is getting worse because of steps taken to make children safer.

But I'd also note that alarms don't work if they're commonplace - see that poor man with his motion sensor - so I'd worry that another signature beeping will ultimately sink down to automatic noise handling as well.

Tony P's suggestion looks good, so long as we can limit the number of false positives.

I remembered when air bags became standard equipment, and suddenly kids were banished to the back seat. Air bags are good, of course, but not for kids, and putting them in the back seat was the easy solution. But something about it just seemed wrong, somehow. Not that I anticipated this scenario, and not that I knew (or know) of a better way to deal with air bags and kids -- it just seemed wrong, somehow. But a kid in the front seat would be harder to forget.

And why is it that parents are so stressed out that they actually forget they have kids in the car? Could it have anything to do with the union-busting, outsourcing and skewing of income away from workers and towards management in recent decades? Maybe the cost of solving this problem (or the cost of not solving it) could be accounted for in that ledger.

There was a live discussion with Weingarten at the Post yesterday. It's illuminating. One of the reasons he wrote the story was that it nearly happened to him 25 years ago.

Please don't take this comment as in any way trying to lay blame, because every time I've read stories about this kind of thing my reaction has always been - still is - that this could so easily be me it's not even funny. (Not that I drive. Or that I have a kid.) But that kind of "doing something else at the same time, just forgot..." is exactly what I do far too often, and back when I lived in shared flats I used to lock myself out, burn pots because I'd forgotten I'd left them boiling - walk away from toast under the grill, for god's sake -

When I started living alone, it occurred to me that I had been rescued from this kind of forgetfulness so many times - and that I needed to fix the problem.

When I leave the house - even just to go outside for a few minutes, even if I know I have already put my keys in my pocket two minutes earlier - I do not close the door without feeling for my keys. Not until my hand has touched my keys do I let myself close the door. I used to lock myself out of the shared flat a couple of times a year, and often didn't realise it until I was coming home: I've lived alone for eight years and locked myself out exactly once. (An accident involving an escaping cat and a bag of groceries into which my keys had fallen - I was returning to the house at the time.)

And I thought, reading these terrible stories, that for me, if I were a parent, the solution I would adopt would be to instill in myself the nervous habit of opening the passenger door at the back and looking at the back seat, every time I walked away from the car. Not related in any way to whether I knew the baby was in the car or not, because the only way I could be sure I would remember to do it would be if I did it every time.

I don't disagree with the idea of putting sensors in cars (ideally, sensors that could be fitted in old cars, too) that would save a child's life if forgotten. I'm certain that if it became mandatory to do it, car manufacturers would find an affordable way of doing it.

But a lot of children's lives were saved when the British government ran the "Back to sleep" campaign about always putting your baby on her back to sleep. "Always check your back seat" - Like the daycare van with the quiet child who gets forgotten: there's got to be the standard routine, even if you're sure all the children are out, of someone getting inside and formally looking, each time, every time.

This came up in discussion at Pandagon, where someone else said that leaving anything all day in a car in Arizona, where she lived, is usually a bad idea - temperatures can get high enough to destroy a CD...

It isn't blame, because as the article says - people don't think they could do it, until they do. Only some kind of national campaign, not laying blame but just saying "every time you walk away from your car, check the back seat" - every time - " might also save some lives.

What some of the above people, such as Roger, said.

Look, I've got a four month old, I'd probably spring for this as an option. But there are a virtual INFINITY of cheap little gizmos you could put in cars to save an equivalent number of lives. Those handy little gadgets for cutting stuck belts and breaking your window to escape? Why not make them mandatory, with a standard clip on the door?

Put everything in the car that would save 20 lives a year, and who'd be able to afford the car? Hell, who'd be able to fit in it?

Then there's CAFE... Every ounce you add to a car has a tiny but measurable impact on mileage, and there are enforced mileage standards. And as somebody who put some work in years ago on an anti-intrusion door re-enforcement system, I can tell you that those mileage standards DO impact safety. Safety features have weight, you know. Crumple zones take up space, bodies that absorb energy weigh more than bodies that are equally strong but just snap when their strength is exceeded.

Heck, ever seen a crash on NASCAR? And the driver walks away from a wreck that would have them removing you from a standard car with a sponge? The cage and restraint system that makes that possible is too heavy to put in a car and still meet CAFE.

So, glad to oblige you, Gary: We don't put that in cars because it fails the cost benefit analysis. And the alternative to doing cost benefit analysis isn't saving a lot of lives, it's costing lives because you spent your limited budget on the WRONG safety features.

And never forget: CAFE is the one, true "Blood for oil!" program.

This happened to a person I know professionally. I know it could have happened to me. I was fortunate that my daughters' preschool is part of my university, and I've never had anything like that happen, but I've walked around the house looking for car keys that were held in my hand, and any number of sufficiently stupid things to know that it could have happened to me. With sharing duties, multitasking, all those other things that happen when you have two people working are going to give rise to this.

I do think that the car rather than the car seat is the place to develop something. The electronic brains of the car is sufficiently developed that adding something like this should not be overly difficult. However, upgrading the child seat with electronics seems a lot more problematic.

"However, upgrading the child seat with electronics seems a lot more problematic."

Got that exactly backwards, LJ: Car seats are specifically purchased by people with baby's safety in mind, who are in exactly the right mindset to put out a few more bucks for something like this. And you put it in the car seat, you don't have to wait 20 years for all the old cars to wear out and be replaced, car seats have a much shorter product lifecycle. Doesn't matter how old the car is, if it's the car seat doing the work.

And it's absurdly simple to instrument a baby seat to know if a baby's in it, compared to instrumenting the car to figure that out. You can also toss in a cross-check to make sure the baby is strapped in, too.

A pressure switch and temperature switch would keep the gadget from draining the battery at any time that it wasn't reporting a problem, so a lithium cell would last like 10 years in this application.

What doesn't make sense is building this into the car, which most of the time is NOT going to have a baby in it.

The cost as a percentage of a new car versus a new car seat is quite different and it makes a difference who should be responsible for putting it in. A car manufacturer could easily have it so you couldn't remove your key or have your car make a marked sound when you go to lock it if the child is still there.

The number of these incidents is small, so it is always going to fail your cost-benefit analysis, but I recall someone writing:

Thinking that "value" is some kind of objective measure of an object or activity, rather than just opinions of particular people, is a trap anybody who's the least bit economically literate should never fall into.

"So, glad to oblige you, Gary"

Thanks, Brett.

I no longer can give you a citation, but I recall reading an article in a magazine such as the Atlantic commenting on the frequency of infanticide in antiquity and the fact that it is still prevalent, but covered up and explained away as an individual aberration in modern American society. There are certainly a few cases of infanticide folded into the modern statistics, perhaps in some cases unconsciously driven. Child neglect is another possible manifestation of modern infanticide.

It would save probably a hundred times as many lives to require a ignition interlock device connected to a breathalyzer as to require a baby sensor in the backseat. Or an alarm that sounds whenever the car is travelling over, say, 70mph. I do wonder why people are advocating for the baby sensor instead of the many other, simpler safety gizmos that would surely save more than twenty lives a year.

A car manufacturer could easily have it so you couldn't remove your key or have your car make a marked sound when you go to lock it if the child is still there.

I don't have kids and I'm not a mechanical engineer, but this does not seem easy to me. Car seats vary in weight. Car seat occupants certainly do. The smallest occupant will only weight a few pounds. But the variance in weight between different car seats will certainly be more than a few pounds. Which means that the car will have to calculate the difference in weight between the time when the car seat is empty and the time when the kid is strapped in. But that seems hard since the car is off when there is no kid there (parents put kid in car seat and then turn ignition, right?). And it seems hard to build a very fine weight sensor that can reliably discern very small differences in weight for many years without regular calibration. It seems particularly hard to do that through the thick cushioning of the backseat without getting confused from people sitting adjacent to it, jostling around, shifting weight. Doing all that cheaply seems very very hard. Setting off false positives pisses customers off.

This doesn't sound easy to me, but perhaps I'm missing something.

Isn't there some type of sensor in the front passenger seats of new and newish cars that has something to do with the passenger airbag not deploying in some circumstances?

If THAT sensor can be programmed into a car at what I assume is a reasonable cost, why can't a baby/toddler seat not be equipped with a sensor as described above, sounding if the car is turned off and the child not taken out of the seat?

Intellectually, this is something I could never see happening to me because I very regularly open my back doors to get my kids out when they're actually in the car. But because I do regularly open the door to take out a kid who is not actually in the car, I have to admit that I really AM the kind of parent this could happen to. Which scares me.

As far as sensors in cars, I drive a newish cheap-as-hell Korean Car (It's a 2004) which already HAS the kind of sensor we're talking about -- it's a front seat weight sensor that disables the airbag if the weight on the seat is less than about 125 pounds, because airbags aren't safe for children or people of smaller stature. It's standard equipment on my (and from looking at friends cars and rentals I've driven, many) cars. I can't imagine that adapting that sensor to detect a small child left in a car seat and raise a ruckus through the horn/alarm system is in any way so complicated or expensive as to interfere with car cost or cafe standards, because seriously... if these things were expensive, Hyundai wouldn't be offering them standard.

Biosparite: You're probably thinking of Sarah Hrdy, or an excerpt or review of one of her books. Absolutely worth a read, if you're interested in an anthropological perspective on parenting.

Car seats are specifically purchased by people with baby's safety in mind, who are in exactly the right mindset to put out a few more bucks for something like this. And you put it in the car seat, you don't have to wait 20 years for all the old cars to wear out and be replaced, car seats have a much shorter product lifecycle. Doesn't matter how old the car is, if it's the car seat doing the work.

There is much wisdom here I think.

And it's absurdly simple to instrument a baby seat to know if a baby's in it, compared to instrumenting the car to figure that out.

It is much much easier. I'm not sure if it is absurdly simple.

On the flip side though, your car seat lacks information that the car has easy access to. Like, whether or not the doors are open and how fast you're moving. Plus, the car has power.

A pressure switch and temperature switch would keep the gadget from draining the battery at any time that it wasn't reporting a problem, so a lithium cell would last like 10 years in this application.

I don't understand how this would work. You don't want it to beep whenever there is weight AND it gets hot. By that point, the parent is long gone, right? Or is the idea that it should set off a car alarm like thing which would alert bystanders? If so, how are you going to power the alarm with your tiny long life battery? The alarm will have to be really really loud on the inside if it is going to get anyone's attention on the outside. Besides taking a lot of power, you risk injuring the infant's hearing I'd think. What am I missing here?

If THAT sensor can be programmed into a car at what I assume is a reasonable cost, why can't a baby/toddler seat not be equipped with a sensor as described above, sounding if the car is turned off and the child not taken out of the seat?

The sensor you're talking about does exist in new cars. However, I don't think it is comparable to what we're talking about. All the sensor has to do is notice if there is any weight on the seat more than, say 20 pounds, and less than, say, 100 pounds. The sensor in my car doesn't go off when I place my heavy backpack in the seat but it does when I place heavier equipment. This means that the sensor doesn't have to be sensitive to fine weight differences. Over time, the sensor's threshold will drift by a few (or maybe a dozen) pounds. Going off only when the passenger weights 120 pounds rather than 100 pounds isn't a big deal, but having your threshold drift by 20 pounds is the difference between detecting an infant and not.

Note that you need to detect both the empty weight of the car seat and the weight of the car seat plus infant. This is hard. If the sensor detects a difference of four pounds, does that mean that you swapped out a slightly heavier car seat? Or does that mean you have a preemie in the car seat? Or does that mean you have no kid in the seat, but random electrical noise caused the sensor to register four pounds higher? Or does that mean that noise caused the sensor register high the first time?

Also, front seat airbag sensors don't have to deal with a bench seat on which other people can sit next to the person you're weight and distribute some of their weight over the sensor.

None of these problems occur for front seat airbag sensors. Lots of things seem easy until you try to engineer them for the real world.

It doesn't have to be weight. My wife's car is keyless, in that if she has a card in her purse, it not only locks and unlocks given her proximity, she can also get in the car and not use a key.

Some sort of seatbelt sensor (to strap the car seat in requires the seatbelt to be locked) along with a change of weight between the driving and parking mode could be used. Speech technology, tied with a change of weight in the seat could then bring it past the notification threshold. I think that the weight might be more than a few pounds, because it sounds like it isn't newborns that are primarily the problem, but slightly older children who can be taken to daycare.

I'm not saying that it is simple, but I think it is doable, and even if the initial iterations lack some refinement, the public consciousness raising is as important. In fact, I'm surprised that some auto manufactuers haven't folded some high tech version in. Here in Japan, some cars have cameras in the back to avoid backing into something, and the advertisement has a kid's ball bouncing behind the car and the accident avoided because the woman parking sees it on her video screen.

Here is your solution: Key fob alarm that activates if it gets a given distance away from a buckled car seat. Presumably, if you have unbuckled the car seat, you have taken the baby out.

It doesn't have to be weight...
Some sort of seatbelt sensor (to strap the car seat in requires the seatbelt to be locked) along with a change of weight between the driving and parking mode could be used.

You'll forgive my confusion, but it seems that your plan does in fact require a weight sensor. I don't see how this solution addresses most of the problems I raised in my original reply to you. There is still no way to deal with the fact that car seat weight varies and sometimes people replace car seats. Nor is there any way to easily filter out the weight effects from adjacent seats. Etc.

Speech technology, tied with a change of weight in the seat could then bring it past the notification threshold.

Speech technology? What are you talking about?

I think that the weight might be more than a few pounds, because it sounds like it isn't newborns that are primarily the problem, but slightly older children who can be taken to daycare.

Ah, so this technology won't do anything to save the lives of children who weigh less than 30 pounds? That makes the design easier, but since you're pushing a child safety improvement, you might cause more newborn deaths since parents believe they're protected even though the system only protects children above a certain weight.

I'm not saying that it is simple, but I think it is doable

So you no longer think that it "should not be difficult"? That's good. Of course, almost anything is doable. That's not the issue. The issues at hand are cost, robustness, reliability, and accuracy.

What if you take a hand mirror and stick it where the baby can see itself and the driver can see the baby's face from the rearview mirror and then have a giant (like size of your palm) cardboard keytag that hangs on the carseat when the child is not in it and is with you in the front seat when the child is in the seat. This 1)offers visibility of the child which is the major preventative in cases like this, and 2) offers a tactile reminder so if you're concentrating on something else it jogs your memory. Because I know I would say "what's this...oh shit." That way you have two systems in place to protect the baby. 3)neither of these things requires a battery, they are both relatively inexpensive and they both could be passed out at the hospital when you take the baby home. They could be part of the "carseat installment" thing that you have to do to be able to take the baby home from the hospital.

Daniel,

That actually seems like a really good solution. I don't know what it would take for that kind of product to get wider distribution though. The hospitals in my area seem to require that parents show them a car seat before they let them take the newborn home. Maybe that same mechanism can be used to "encourage" adoption of this technology.

This phenomenon is a social problem, not an engineering problem.

Apparently, Turb, both the key fob and the seat pad use batteries (lithium and AA respectively), but are both equipped with low battery warnings.

I'm ordering two of them today.

That was a truly amazing piece of journalism. I can't remember any other story in a newspaper that left me crying at the end, in sympathy for the parents and with horror for the suffering of the children. It should definitely win a Pulitzer Prize and should be required reading for every member of Congress.

If the government can require kids to be backwards facing in the rear seat, it MUST accept some portion of the responsibility and take steps to correct the problem it exacerbated.

BTW, I'm old enough that when we were kids, there weren't even seatbelts, and we sat in the front, stood between the bucket seats, climbed over the seats, sat on our parents' laps as they drove, etc. I'm sure many kids were killed in car accidents, but I don't remember many being left in hot cars.

You're making the almost certainly faulty assumption that a sensor would prevent all incidents like the one described from happening.

That's almost certainly not the case.

neil - I don't get what the distinction is between "social problem" and "engineering problem".

For example: Motorcycles can be equipped with wheel locks. Try to ride away without removing the lock, and you'll dump the bike and yourself on the ground, probably damaging both. To avoid forgetting that the wheel lock is engaged, many people who use them connect a brightly colored cord from the lock to the handlebars, to remind them to remove the lock before using the bike.

A "social" problem (forgot to remove the lock) with an "engineering" solution (mechanism for reminding you that the lock is present).

As for forgetting children in car seats: When I was in grade school, my mother once drove halfway to work before remembering that she needed to drop me off at school. I was sitting in the passenger seat, talking to her. If a responsible parent can forget a child that she's talking to, how much easier when the child is silent and out of sight?

The best solution, in my mind, is simply to find a way to safely put car seats in the front passenger seat.

I don't usually tell this story but what the hell, it seems relevant. In 2002 I got very, very badly sick. Don't really know why -- might've been stress-induced, might've been prolonged exposure to chemicals, might've just been genetic predeliction -- and don't really know what it was, either. Best I can say is that for nine months I was mentally incapacitated. I was perfectly cognizant of my surroundings, I could cook and clean and maintain basic standards of hygeine, but... the best I can put it is that I couldn't process new data and, to some extent, I couldn't form new thoughts. I could read the same books and repeat the same arguments; beyond that, things were tenuous at best.

Which is a problem when you're trying to write a dissertation.

Part of the problem was that my short-term memory got fried, almost to the point of retrograde amnesia. I'd go to the drug store, all of two minutes away, and by the time I'd arrived I'd forgotten why I was there. I'd spend two hours on the phone with a friend, and be unable to name a single topic of conversation five minutes later -- even though I could tell you, almost verbatim, what we'd talked about years previously. And, in the time it would take me to remove my coat, I would not only forget where I'd placed my mail, I'd forget the fact that I even had mail to begin with.

[Fun digression: I called my credit card companies in August to complain that I hadn't received a single bill from them since May. The following January, I was cleaning my apartment and found literally months of unread mail behind my couch. It seems that I had balanced the mail on the arm of the couch while I was taking off my coat. Perfectly normal, perfectly safe. If the mail fell off in the process, hoewver, which it was wont to do... out of sight, out of mind in five seconds flat.]

The reason I bring this up is that when I say my short term memory was fried, I don't mean it didn't exist. The memories were there, but they had to be triggered externally. If someone asked me why I was standing in Walgreens, I could tell them; if I called someone else and they asked me what I'd been talking about, I coudl tell them; and if someone asked me where my mail was, I'd've told them I just knocked it on the floor, duh. The memories were fine: it was my ability to access them that was fried.

In essence, my brain was running on autopilot for nine months. Having gone through that, I can completely understand how someone who is otherwise a devoted parent could suddenly overlook their child's existence. It's surreal, unnatural and real; and it's one of the most terrifying things I've ever experienced, the more so because you don't realize that it's happening until it's already happened. It's like sleeping awake, being a spectator in your own life without realizing you're living it.

All of which is a VERY long way of saying: those poor, poor parents. I hope they can one day find peace.

I'm not an engineer, so I'm there may be aspects of the following which aren't feasible, but what about a carseat that can sense when a baby is in it and sends out some wireless electronic signal. This signal is then picked up by some receiver that's hooked into the car -- I don't know if it's technically feasible, but for argument's sake let's just say it plugs into the cigarette lighter. The receiver can tell when the ignition is turned off, and when it senses both a baby in the carseat and the ignition turned off it will beep to alert the driver, similar to when you turn the key off and your lights are still on.

The energy usage for the carseat would seem to be minimal, so you could theoretically have a small battery with a long shelf-life. The receiver could be powered by the car. The driver would be alerted real time, so baby wouldn't have to suffer needlessly while waiting for the temperature to reach a certain threshold. Is it possible for a device plugged into the cigarette lighter to detect when the car is turned off?

I agree sensors would have to be very specific, but I think the thing about buckling in and then not unbuckling when the next car door opening/closing occurs is on the right track.

As for voice technology, I also thought about this as a solution to just turning off the alarm. In solving this problem, the alarm would not be the usual one, but one that SAID "child in car" and could not be turned off until the parent returned and unbuckled the belt.

Still, there are many people with older cars and older car seats (especially in these hard times) that this horrible situation will still occur.

I question whether the stressed parents in this story would have actually followed through with the mnemonics in the story given the stress they were under on the fateful days. Would they have taken the teddy bear out and just tossed it on the floor in the hurry to leave? Still, the solutions are free and easy.

Turb, the point of my original comment is that the car manufacturers are, because of the way our society is made up, the best place to locate this sort of change as opposed to the car seat manufacturers. I also responded to your comment as if it were what I actually said, but looking back, here is what I said

A car manufacturer could easily have it so you couldn't remove your key...

Obviously, a car seat manufacturer would have a lot harder time with this :^)

When the car manufacturers have "solved" this problem, we will relocate it elsewhere, as other people have already said here.
We bond to our children over a long period of time, and through THEIR interactions with us, not just OUR attachment to them.
The younger the child, the less active it is, the easier it is to forget him or her, wherever.
Those are facts of life.
They certainly don't take anything away from the parent's anguish, however.
We need to concentrate on building a quality of life that ensures that parents can be more available for their children. Not on more technological security devices.

I'm a dingbat, so I can imagine myself doing this. My husband says no way. But he did forget his kid (my step-son, years before he was my step-son)) on the roof of the car in the car-seat when the frazzled dad drove off. The car-seat went splat in the drive-way, but fortunately it protected the baby.

If we took out the damn airbags designed to protect the people who can't be bothered to fasten their seat-belts, we could put babies in the front seat where they would be remembered by frazzled parents.

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