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Can technology end tragic accidents like Gilbert hot car death?

(KidsAndCars.org Photo)

PHOENIX – Carmakers and child safety advocates are hoping technology can make hot car deaths like the one in Gilbert this week a thing of the past.

Dawn Peabody of Arizona said the group she volunteers for, KidsAndCars.org, has been working to educate about the dangers of leaving children in hot cars for years, yet the tragic incidents reached an all-time high nationally in 2018.

“Right now my car will let me know if I forget to put on my gas cap. It lets me know if I’m out of windshield wiper fluid. My car has the ability to turn off the airbag if someone is too light in the front seat,” Peabody told KTAR News 92.3 FM on Tuesday, hours after a 3-year-old girl died when she was left in a car outside a Gilbert residence.

“But if I accidentally forget my child in the back seat it does nothing but act as an oven.”

Peabody said most hot car deaths are accidents, not cases where the parent or caretaker purposely left a child in the car without understanding the danger.

“The most common type of this incident is a parent that had a change of routine, or some adult that was driving the child had some change of routine, and misremembered … having their child with them, which resulted in them forgetting they had the child in the back seat,” she said.

According to KidsAndCars.org statistics, there were more than 50 hot car deaths in the U.S. for the first time last year. The group said Tuesday’s incident in Gilbert was the nation’s 39th fatality of 2019 and second in the Phoenix area.

“It’s happened to judges. It’s happened to police. It’s happened to rocket scientists. It’s happened to grandparents and parents,” Peabody said. “So this type of accident can absolutely happen to anybody.”

Peabody said back seat sensor alarm technology exists, as do systems that ask drivers to check the back seat before locking the vehicle.

“The technology is out there; it’s just not required in all vehicles at this point,” she said.

That’s why KidsAndCars.org has been lobbying Congress to pass the Hot Cars Act of 2019, which would eventually mandate that all new vehicles be equipped with back seat alert technology.

However, carmakers aren’t waiting around for lawmakers.

Twenty automakers representing 98% of new vehicles sold have agreed to install electronic reminders by the 2025 model year.

“Automakers have been exploring ways to address this safety issue, and this commitment underscores how such innovations and increased awareness can help children right now,” said David Schwietert, interim CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group that includes a dozen large car companies.

Members of Global Automakers, an association of manufacturers based outside the U.S., also are taking part.

Automakers say the voluntary agreement will get the alerts installed faster than a government regulation.

Several automakers already are offering such a feature. General Motors, for instance, has a reminder on all of its four-door sedans, trucks and SUVs starting with the 2019 model year. Hyundai has pledged to make a similar system standard on its vehicles by 2022.

The auto alliance says the agreement is a minimum and doesn’t preclude automakers from coming up with more sophisticated solutions.

In the absence of technology, Peabody said parents and caretakers should always make a habit of checking the back seat after parking.

“Every time a parent gets out of vehicle, open up that back door, check that back seat, make sure you didn’t misremember dropping someone off or a little one didn’t decide to go bye-bye with you,” she said.

“I’ve heard stories of that too, where little ones hear mommy or daddy is leaving and then go get in the car and unbeknownst to mommy or daddy they’re back there.”

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Taylor Kinnerup and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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