Researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) are studying rear seat alerts, both manufacturer and aftermarket options, in an effort to help save lives.

Every year, 38 children on average die in the United States inside a hot car, according to the National Safety Council. In 2018, pediatric vehicular heatstroke became the leading cause of nontraffic child fatalities nationwide.

Research scientists Eric and Laurel Glenn developed the idea while they were expecting their first child. During a road trip to Jacksonville, Florida, Laurel, who was 36 weeks pregnant at the time, was on her phone signing a petition of support for the Hot Cars Act of 2017. The act would have required all new cars to be equipped with an auditory/visual alert system to remind drivers to check the rear seat of their vehicles before exiting. Laurel started talking to Eric about the issue of child hot-car deaths and googling the preventative technologies available.

“There wasn’t much information out there, and the stories I read were sending me into tears. At one point, Eric shouted, ‘Wait! We work at a transportation safety institute. Let’s do a study on it.’ We thought it was important to try and do our part to help combat this issue,” said Laurel Glenn, research associate for VTTI’s Center for Truck and Bus Safety.

After returning from vacation, the Glenns received support from the National Surface Transportation Safety Center for Excellence to pursue their research. They set about researching pediatric vehicular heatstroke, as well as the rear seat reminder technologies that are currently available on the market.

Their final report offers guidelines for manufacturers on how to make their alerts more effective and consumer friendly. According to the findings, an ideal rear seat reminder technology should:

·        Be intuitive to use.

·        Minimize false alerts so that consumers do not disable or ignore the system.

·        Use a hierarchy of alerts that escalate attempts to get the driver’s attention.

·        Utilize in-vehicle features to contact emergency personnel. (i.e. On-Star, Hyundai BlueLink, etc.)

·        Incorporate multiple methods to help detect when a child lets him or himself into a vehicle without parental knowledge, which results in 25 percent of hot-car deaths.

·        Include passive systems that try to regulate the environmental conditions of the vehicle if needed (i.e. turning on the air conditioning).

·        Address unintended consequences of technology implementation.

The researchers also recommend increasing consumer education via doctors’ offices and driver’s education courses. However, Laurel Glenn cautions that no technology is infallible or a replacement for attentive parenting.

“Parents have to buy in to the idea that they might forget, despite their best intentions,” she noted. “No parent thinks they could, but unfortunately, it happens every year. We encourage parents to use the technology available to them, but to also remain alert so they can make good decisions for their children.”

For the next phase of their research, Eric and Laurel Glenn are evaluating the functionality of currently available systems and rating them by performance. They anticipate completing the study by the end of the summer.  

The research is funded by the National Surface Transportation Safety Center for Excellence (NSTSCE). NSTSCE, which is housed at VTTI, was established by the Federal Public Transportation Act of 2005 to develop and disseminate advanced transportation safety techniques and innovations in both rural and urban communities.

Related links

·        Pediatric Vehicular Heatstroke: Review of Literature and Preventative Technologies

·        National Surface Transportation Safety Center for Excellence

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Anne Deekens

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