It was a cruel irony that Olivia Ann Engstrom died on National Heatstroke Prevention Day.
The 18-month-old was found dead inside a car late Sunday afternoon at her family’s rural home near Abilene, Kan. The outside temperature reached 97 degrees that day. The inside of the vehicle must have been like an oven. Olivia would have succumbed in minutes.
Her parents don’t know how she came to be in the car. She had been playing outdoors with her siblings. But Olivia became the 24th child in the U.S. to die of vehicular heatstroke so far this year — exactly twice as many as this time last year.
“The numbers go up and down from year to year,” said Amber Andreasen of Olathe, director of Kids and Cars, a nonprofit advocacy group for child safety. “Last year was uncharacteristically low. The average number of fatalities a year going back to 1990 is 37. That includes children who were left in a car and children who got in on their own.”
Of the more than 775 cases since 1990, 87 percent of the kids were 3 years old or younger. In 28 percent of cases, kids somehow got into a car by themselves. In 13 percent of cases, the child was knowingly left in the car, perhaps while the parent ran into the store “for just a minute.” Four percent of cases are unclear. But the remaining 55 percent involve a parent or guardian forgetting and leaving the child in the car.
It is a well-known problem, inadvertently made worse by the now-common practice of placing children in the back seat to prevent airbag deaths. But it is a problem that has escaped the regulatory web that reaches into so many other aspects of modern transportation.
That’s why Kids and Cars and other advocates welcomed an announcement this summer by General Motors that the 2017 edition of its Acadia SUV will include a reminder system to prompt parents who might forget about their precious cargo in the back seat when they go about their day.
The feature knows when a back door of the vehicle is opened before the car drives off, indicating that the operator placed something, or someone, in the back seat. When the driver’s door opens, a tone is sounded and a message appears in the middle of the odometer that says, “Look in the rear seat.”
General Motors has said it will add the feature to more models in the future.
Andreasen said it is a welcome step but it’s not enough. Kids and Cars wants the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to require a reminder system in all models from all automakers.
“Automakers have all these reminders that are so important about airbags, tire pressure, low fuel, turn your headlights on,” she said. “I know it sounds a bit gruesome, but it’s almost as if they’ve decided that it’s more important not to have a dead car battery than a dead baby.”
But parents don’t have to wait for government regulation or buy next year’s Acadia. There are products available that can help prevent child vehicular heat strokes.
One new one is called Brilliant Backseat by Rear View Safety. It is activated when the back door of a vehicle is opened before driving. When the car is turned off, a chime reminds the driver to check the back seat. If the back door is not opened within 40 seconds, the vehicle’s horn sounds an SOS — literally the Morse code signal, drawing the attention of passersby.
“Not only will it remind you, if for some reason you don’t respond you’ll get someone’s attention,” said James Grossbaum, marketing director for Rear View Safety.
Here is a video explainer of the Brilliant Backseat. It sells for $99.99 online.
Another product is a SensorSafe car seat by Evenflo, which has a smart chest clip that emits a sound when the car reaches its destination and the engine is turned off. It sells for $149.
Andreasen, who is expecting a baby in the spring, plans to purchase a SensorSafe car seat.
“We have worked with hundreds of families who have lost a child” to vehicular heat stroke, she said. “There’s just nothing more devastating, really, that could happen to anybody. They’re never the same. They live the rest of their life in a hell that nobody else can even imagine.”
Tips to prevent child vehicular heat stroke:
▪ Put something you will need in the back seat, such as cell phone, briefcase or purse.
▪ Keep a stuffed animal in the car to place in the front seat as a reminder.
▪ Make sure your daycare provider knows to call you if your child is not dropped off.
▪ Keep car keys out of reach.