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AskTog, September, 2002

Are Safety Experts Killing Our Kids?

   Three things you can count on with the arrival of summer are mosquitoes, forest fires, and children being left to die in cars.

I don't remember kids dying in cars very often when I was a kid, unless, of course, the car was moving at the time. Back then, my only crash protection was my mother's swiftly-moving arm.

Her arm was effective for the few hard stops we experienced but would have been worthless in a real accident. Swiftly following the advent of safety belt came child safety seats, with infant son or daughter buckled in tightly just next to Mom.

This new system worked fine until the advent of air bags. These lifesavers for adults had the unfortunate effect of delivering a round-house punch to children nestled all snug in their seats. Children were immediately relegated to the back seat, where they began to die.

"Out of sight, out of mind."

"Grandmother leaves child in hot car for eight hours; child succumbs to heat."

"Father forgets to drop off child at day care; son left in car to die."

We read these headlines over and over, each time telling ourselves that these are unloving, uncaring, bad parents, and that only some kind of monster could forget their own children in a hot car.

The people responsible almost invariably turn out not to be monsters. They are simply people for whom "out of sight, out of mind" is particularly true.

The threat of punishment can't help, because most of these people have killed their kids in spite of their best efforts to keep them alive.

The reality of punishment can't help, because these people will suffer the tortures of the damned every day for the rest of their lives, realizing what they've done. I would imagine many of them actually draw comfort from being locked in a cell, as a form of expiation.

Some might argue that I'm being way too easy on the people who have killed their kids. Not so. I'm just being realistic. As far as I know, none of these people has ever killed again. Locking up someone who has made this tragic mistake in the past will have no effect on future deaths, and it is future deaths on which we must focus.

Only one group has the ability to stop future deaths: The safety experts who continue to insist we put our children in the backseat while ignoring that, for many people, "out of sight, out if mind" is literally true.

"No driver should be able to exit a car with a child in a car seat without being reminded the child is in the car."

Recently, a company began seeking approval for a child safety seat that would allow you to put your child in the front seat, while protecting him or her from a deploying air bag. The safety experts went off like Blue Meanies: "Children belong in one place, and one place only: The back seat." Well, guess what? They are dying back there.

Am I advocating moving kids up front? Not necessarily. The new seat seeks to protect the kids from air bags by almost completely enshrouding them, thus still making them "out of sight." What I am advocating is ensuring that drivers are aware the kids are around.

No driver should be able to exit a car with a child in a car seat without being reminded the child is in the car.

The US government has always rolled over to the auto maker's claim that they can't build intelligent notification systems. It began back in the 1960s with the proposal that the car would remind drivers who had not bucked up that they should do so. "Oh, no," the auto makers argued, "There is no technology to do so. It would be ruinous economically." Instead, we got a buzzer that goes off when the ignition is turned on, whether we're wearing our seat belts already or not. Engineering by rationalization.

This was a crock then, and it is a crock now. If you, as an engineer, cannot figure out a way to tell that a metal buckle has been snapped into a metal fitting, you need to go back to school.

Child safety seats have metal buckles. They have metal fittings. Run a wire from the seat to the car's computer. Remind the driver the kid is there as soon as the driver's door is opened. If the driver either locks the car or fails to open any other doors on the car (including the gas cap door) within one minute, start sounding the horn and continue to do so until someone comes and rescues the kid.

Bring back Voice

The initial warning could be yet another chime, but voice would be better.

"Child in car" is far more effective that "buzzzzzzzzzz."

Of course, auto makers already tried voice, and people apparently didn't like it.

Sure they did--in principle. What people didn't like was an obnoxious voice telling them to fasten their seat belts when the belts were already fastened.

People do like voice when the voice is helpful. GPS moving map systems all use voice to call out directions. (One early system used to chide people for failing to make the turn when told; people didn't like that. Now, the systems just replot the route from the turn you took.)

Add voice. It will save lives.

The Next Step

The safety experts did the right thing when they moved kids away from the air bags, nor could they have easily foreseen the consequences of that decision. Now the consequences are all too clear. The experts need to stop ignoring the headlines and do something before more kids are needlessly killed.

These changes could add $20 or even $50 to the price of a car. I'd be happy to pay it, if it would keep my future grandchildren from slowly roasting to death in a hot car. Wouldn't you?


Several readers wrote into say that, no, they would not be willing to spend an extra $50 to add a life-saving warning system for infants in the backseat. They do not have nor intend to have infants in their backseat, and they are tired of having to pay for unneeded, unwanted safety features.

This is, in my opinion, a reasonable position. Adult-proof—I mean, child-proof—drug packaging is my particular pet peeve. I have no young children around me anymore, and I find it galling that I must struggle every time I want an aspirin because someone else can't keep their drugs out of the hands of children.

On the other hand, such measures have prevented many, many deaths, and packages can be designed that are either easy for the adult to open or that are convertible, with pill bottle caps that can be screwed on two ways—with the safety feature or, flipped upside down, without it.

When I suggested $50 as a figure for the warning system, I was assuming a 10-fold markup on the actual manufacturing cost by the time the car is sold at retail. The industry wouldn't necessarily have to maintain such a profit margin.

The other factor that one must consider is that the person who buys a car today, never expecting to transport an infant, might very well be a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, neighbor, or friend next year, pressed into chauffeur service quite by chance.

Here are a few other responses.

A Reader Response

As a mechanical engineering student and programmer, I have found your columns very enlightening and useful. I just finished reading your article on child safety seats, and I thought of an improvement to your idea for a child safety seat that alerts the driver that the child is still in the car. Seat belt indicator signals are easy to implement because the belt is physically attached to the car; running a couple of electrical contacts into the buckle is trivial. However, ensuring such an electrical contact in a removable child safety seat is more difficult. Your design can't expect the parent to (say) run a plug from the child safety seat into a socket so that the car can detect if the seat is bucked.

My suggestion is to add a simple wireless networking package (Bluetooth, for instance) to child safety seats. When the seat is buckled, the networking package emits a signal to notify the car. Because cars are most certainly going to be equipped with wireless networking technology in the future, the cost to implement this system is negligible to the car manufacturer. The seat, itself, will probably be a little bit more expensive, but no more than $5.

Kudos on yet another good article!


A Reader Response

The hidden tragedy is that the force with which an air bag deploys was set (by law) for people who are NOT WEARING seat belts, rather than as a supplement to the seat belt. That mandate is what makes the front seat dangerous for kids -- and is directly responsible for several deaths. As a new parent who has had to endure a crying baby all alone in the back seat, I would certainly prefer the option of keeping him up front with me.

If my facts are correct, the problem you identified could be solved more easily by fixing the original law.

One other point: given the government's history of botched regulations, perhaps it would be more productive to encourage auto makers to add the feature as a selling point. If it's a feature that people genuinely want, there's a fair chance they'll get it.


A Reader Response

Re: Are Safety Experts Killing Our Kids?

Great idea! My husband and I give it the thumbs up (both of us tend to be “out of sight out of mind-ers” but, thankfully, have yet to forget one of our children).

Kristen Cormick

A Reader Response


I recently read your article, “Are Safety Experts Killing Our Kids?” and while not working in automotive areas currently, feel I have to add somewhat to the discussion.

My starting point is a question of the reason for placing children in the back seat. I believe that there is a variety of research that concludes that middle of the rear seat is the safest location for a person in a car involved in an accident. The fact that air bags introduce new dangers to young / small individuals is additional but not the only reason for the rear seat recommendations.

And while I work with subjective indicators and anecdotal events in my research, “the arms of a loving mother” should be recognised in fair play as an inadequate safety device for our modern world. Biplanes were nice and excite my aesthetic, but, hey, would you like to fly constantly in them?

I currently drive a 2 door, 2 passenger sports car. And I have a 7 year old son. Subsequently I belong to a group that is impacted upon by air bags and young / small passengers. My car deals with this issue with a key lock that turns off the air bag for the passenger. While “unlocked” ( - read turned off, ) a warning light shows up in the dashboard with a reasonably straight forward symbol. I agree that a clearer message would be better, although I take account of cultural difficulties and the cultural imperialism that would result in an English language message.

Of course a weight sensor together with a presence sensor (so as to stop false triggering by placing a briefcase, etc., on the passenger seat,) using accepted weight to height truth tables could significantly automate the air bag. And in today’s world these components would not add much to a car with excessive computing power anyway.

My discussion so far actually avoids the real problem raised by your headline—the leaving of children in conditions that are or could become hostile. And classic “adult” solutions such as releasing the doors will not necessarily help a baby or very young child clamber to safety. But it will assist a child of say 5 and up (figures ergonomic guesstimates and not based on real research!)

Maybe we should be linking presence sensors to the environmental control system - turn on an air-conditioning system if both a live presence is detected (human or animal) and the temperature exceeds or falls below a specific level.

In the end I tend to agree with you that a voice warning is probably the most cost effective solution that could be easily implemented.

And I support your calls for speedy actions where lives can be saved.

Dr. Amir Morris
Human Factors and Aviation Safety Coordinator
Melbourne, Australia

A Reader Response


Your very interesting column on children in the back seat and deaths from heat misses the problem: children dying from heat while left in cars. The simple solution is a system that automatically keeps the interior of the car cool without compromising security. A small solar panel providing electricity to the A/C fan, to keep the air circulating, is cheap and simple. It has the additional benefits of preventing cracked windshields, keeping the car bearable for when you enter it, and reducing gasoline consumption from running the A/C at maximum when you get into a car that feels like an oven. All of these benefits accrue to those without children or pets in the car.

I don't see any need for fancy controllers--the more sun that hits the solar cell, the faster the fan turns. Sunlight is an excellent proxy for heating of the car's interior.

This idea is by no means original; I believe it has been mentioned in Consumer Reports. The auto industry says that there's no demand for it, so they don't do it. It's one of those ideas that doesn't seem interesting until you actually try it by getting into a black car in Phoenix at noon in August!


Ethan McKinney
El Segundo, CA

Tog's Comment

I like the idea of the "live presence" detector and its benefit to dogs and other animals trapped in cars.

Ethan McKinney's contribution is elegant. Why not make the car so it no longer kills anything left within it? Not only would this save lives, it would save technology, from extending the life of the car's stereo system, to not warping all your disks.

A Reader Response


I don't want to include my name and address, however I want to applaud you for addressing this problem.  You see, I am a parent who left my son in the car, and he passed away.  I will never, ever forget how I found him.  You see, if you are a parent who has left your child you are often the one that finds them.  It is something I will never forget, and not something I would want anybody to ever have to go through.  I don't know what happened, and I had never left him in the car before, but it still happened to me.  I pray for all of those parents who have had to go through the same thing and I pray that it doesn't happen again to anybody.  When I saw your article I was happy that at last somebody was looking at this problem as it is very real and very significant.  Thank you!

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