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4 Ways To Avoid Hot Car Deaths

A national organization called Kids and Cars is pushing federal legislation to require all cars to have sensors that detect when a child is in the vehicle after it's locked.
A national organization called Kids and Cars is pushing federal legislation to require all cars to have sensors that detect when a child is in the vehicle after it's locked.

Over the past 30 years, 143 children in Texas have died from being left in the car on a hot day. That's more than any other state in the country.

Kids and Cars founder Janette Fennell said leaving kids in the car by accident is a common mistake, but a preventable one. Her organization is pushing federal legislation to require all cars to have sensors that detect when a child's in the vehicle after it's locked.

"That's probably one of the most important reminders we need to put in our vehicles, we just don't have it yet," she said.

The legislation passed in the U.S. House last year, but not in the Senate. Fennell hopes it passes both chambers this year.

While many people feel that leaving their child in a car is something they would never do, Fennell points out that being distracted or deviating from your normal routine can sometimes lead to accidents. One example she gives is a parent who normally isn't tasked with taking the child to daycare having to do that at the last minute.

"It's like so incredibly easy for this to happen and I'm sure you've experienced it, but you know, dad gets into autopilot, right?" she said. "He's on his way. So autopilot just takes over and goes to work. It's not like he forgot the baby. He just lost awareness that the baby was with him today and then a disaster happens."

Fennell has tips for people to help them form the "Look Before You Lock" habit to make sure a child is not left behind in a car.

  • When you arrive at your destination, open the back door to make sure nothing or no one is back there.

  • Put your cell phone in the back seat, or your employee badge or your lunch or your handbag or your computer — something important that you can't start your day without.

  • Put a stuffed animal in the front seat or some kind of cue that will remind you that your child is in the car seat.

  • Have a plan with your child care provider to immediately call all the family's emergency contact numbers if a child doesn't come to day care, just to make sure the child is safe.

She also stresses that people should make sure that children can't get out of the house and get into a car, whether the family car or someone else's car.

"The other thing that can happen is kids can get into vehicles on their own," Fennell said. "You know, nobody finds them until it's too late."

She said people should make sure their vehicles are locked, even if they're in a garage or the driveway. If a child goes missing, especially in a place such as an apartment complex where many cars are present, people should check inside all the vehicles in the area.

"We actually had a case relatively recently in Texas where a little one was missing," Fennell said. "We said, make sure people check, you know, all the vehicles cause the kids that get in, but they can't get out. What do you know the next morning they did find him. He was dead, but he was in one of the vehicles that was in the apartment complex."

Even with all these precautions, Fennell knows tragedies can still happen.

"We're the organization that brought this whole issue to the national agenda 25 years ago and we have done so much on education and awareness to try to let people know about it, but you can't train the brain to not forget," she said.

That's why she hopes the legislation to detect motion in cars eventually pushes through. She said cars already have many reminders for other things — telling drivers when their doors are ajar, their seat belt hasn't been buckled or that the keys are still in the ignition.

"It's a terrible analogy, but it's exactly the analogy is you can't buy a car today that either automatically turns off your headlights or remind you, you know, make sure you turn off your headlights because, you know, God forbid anyone doesn't want a dead car battery," she said. "But on that same thought process, my goodness, you know, it's much more important that we don't have any children perish in a vehicle."

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Copyright 2021 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Bekah Morr is KERA's Morning Edition producer. She came to KERA from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a news assistant at Weekend All Things Considered. While there, she produced stories and segments for a national audience, covering everything from rising suicide rates among police officers, to abuse allegations against Nike coaches and everything in between. Before that, she interned for a year on Think with Krys Boyd, helping to research, write and produce the daily talk-show. A graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington, Bekah spent her formative journalism years working at the student news organization The Shorthorn. As editor in chief, she helped create the publication’s first, full-color magazine.
Jennifer de la Fuente