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In a summer of child hot car deaths across the country, New York families push for change

Child safety advocates, like a bereaved Rockland County couple, want carmakers to install life-saving technology in every new car.

August 24, 2022 Reuven Blau, THE CITY
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Each time Marissa Rodriguez hears about another child dying inside a hot car she cries and has the urge to reach out to their grieving parents.

Rodriguez’s pain and empathy come from a unique, and tragic, perspective: Her twin 1-year-olds, Luna and Phoenix, died trapped in a Honda sedan parked by her husband, Juan Rodriguez, in Fordham, The Bronx, on a late July day in 2019.  The couple lives in Rockland County.

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Just this month, at least four children left inside hot cars have died, bringing the sad total nationwide to 18 since May, according to Kids and Car Safety, a national nonprofit that tracks each case. That’s already close to the 23 deaths last year.

Marissa Rodriguez and Juan Rodriguez lost their 1-year-old twins. Photo: Juan Rodriguez

While none of those have occurred within the five boroughs, the Rodriguez family and other advocates predict it’s just a matter of time and are pushing for stronger federal car-seat detection and notification laws for automakers.

“It is truly tragic to keep hearing of children passing in this horrific way,” Marissa Rodiguez told THE CITY.

“I cry each time I hear of another child dying in a hot car and I just want to reach out to the parents to hug them and let them know I understand, especially when so many others judge,” she added.

Over 1,000 children inside hot cars have perished since 1990, according to Kids and Car Safety. Another 7,300 kids survived with some type of injury, the group said.

Advocates say those numbers could be greatly reduced by mandating the immediate installation of occupant detection and alert systems in all new cars. The technology costs less than $50, they note, and is already in use in some vehicles.

“It is unfathomable for families to continue burying children when occupant detection technology exists and is readily available to install in all new cars today,” said Janette Fennell, president and founder of Kids and Car Safety.

“These precious children do not have to die in this preventable way,” she added.

The NYPD and FDNY don’t have a category to track how many children they rescue from hot cars each summer, according to spokespeople for both departments.

Police and firefighters respond in Kensington, Brooklyn, after a woman accidentally locked her baby in a car in July. Photo: Facebook

Reminder needed

Some cases are handled within minutes.

In a Brooklyn incident last month, a 2-month-old girl was accidentally trapped inside a car after her mother left the keys inside and locked the car in Kensington, according to witnesses and the NYPD.

The mother called the police right away and they were able to force open the back passenger door, according to a police spokesperson and witnesses.

After years of lobbying by child safety advocates, the federal government finally acted on the issue of back-seat warnings last November with the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The legislation includes a section that requires an “audio and visual reminder alert to check the back seat” in new passenger vehicles.

But activists and grieving parents like the Rodriguezes are concerned that the new law just requires a simple beep and message on the dashboard and does not solve the problem.

They contend drivers will simply ignore the beeps if warnings are too common and not tied to more sophisticated, attention-grabbing alarms that can “detect life.”

Advocates are now urging the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to “issue a safety standard” that prevents the child deaths each summer “in a comprehensive manner which must include occupant detection” within two years.

NHTSA is currently working on publishing a proposed rule for hot car technology, the first step in the new process as per the new law. The final rule must be issued by November 2023, according to the bill.

It may take even longer, safety advocates fear. NHTSA delayed a final ruling on rear visibility assistance such as backup cameras four times.

Experts say adults leaving youngsters in cars usually has nothing to do with parental negligence or foul play.

Rather it is the result of “converging circumstances triggering the habit-based portion of the brain to overcome the thought-based portion of the brain,” David Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of South Florida and expert on the phenomenon, told a prosecutor investigating another hot car death.

“In my 15 years of studying these cases, including dozens of cases I personally have studied, I know of no case in which a parent intentionally left a child in a car in order to cause the child to die,” Diamond told THE CITY.

“It is always a matter of impaired memory, which is a part of normal brain functioning that explains why parents lose awareness of children in cars and then they create a false memory that the child has been taken to the destination,” he added.

The pattern was highlighted in a Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post report in 2009 that detailed similarities among multiple accidental hot-car death cases.

A car in the sun, Aug. 19, 2022. Photo: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Stuck in neutral

But most car makers and child seat manufacturers have balked at installing notification systems.

Automakers have historically added safety features, like backup cameras, to their cars at an extra cost to consumers and only when forced by the government. They likely would not support federal legislation that required a detection system, noted Amber Rollins, director of Kids and Car Safety.

“It’s like we have a cure to cancer but it’s going to sit on a shelf,” she said. “That’s crazy.”

In New York, in 2019 former State Sen. David Carlucci introduced the Heatstroke Elimination Awareness Technology (HEAT) Act, which would have required automakers install a rear seat detection system on every vehicle sold in the state.

But the bill stalled in Albany in part because of the pending federal legislation at the time — and Carlucci did not seek re-election as he launched an unsuccessful run for Congress. No one in the State Legislature appears to have picked up the measure since.

Carlucci, who represented Rockland County, where the Rodriguez family resides, was inspired to act by their case.

But no state lawmaker has taken up the detection cause because “lawmakers are drinking from a firehose of other issues and don’t see this as a problem,” said Carlucci, who now works as a government affairs consultant by helping organizations navigate government.

“It’s an example where the government needs to do their job and step up,” he said, “there are solutions.”

Car safety devices like backup cameras and airbags are ubiquitous in new vehicles, he noted.

“Some of the tech that consumers take for granted is often required by a regulatory agency,” he said, noting that the European Union has stricter car safety regulations. “They are way ahead of us.”

Beginning in 2023, new cars must include a rear seat detection system if they want to obtain the highest five star rating from the European New Car Assessment Program.

The American Automobile Association issues perennial warnings about the dangers of leaving young kids alone in cars.

“Without a doubt, something needs to be done,” Robert Sinclair Jr., a spokesperson for AAA, told THE CITY last summer.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.


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