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Solving hot-car deaths
On the July heatwave, preventable deaths, and how to put cheap consumer technology to work
Under normal circumstances, most of the contiguous United States experiences the peak temperatures of the year between July 15th and August 15th. Thus, a forecast for heat indices in excess of 100° for 160 million Americans on July 24th is unpleasant and unwelcome, but it isn't unseasonal. Relentless heat presents a wide array of dangers, but one of the most heartbreaking is that of the hazard to children left in hot cars.
■ Dozens of American children die each year after being left in cars during extreme heat. These are preventable deaths -- whether they occur by caregiver oversight, by children getting into cars while inadequately supervised, or by the poor decision-making of an adult. The absolute number may be small, but the preventability of the tragedy is what most shocks the attention.
■ Clearly, the public education campaign to "look before you lock" has a role to play in reducing the number of accidental oversight deaths, but those are only about half of the cases. And no public education campaign is perfectly effective, either.
■ It seems like an obvious technical solution is available to us, and it makes little sense that it hasn't been widely implemented already by the automotive industry. It would only need to consist of a few components: Some sort of sensor to detect the presence of a person (or, presumably, of a pet as well), a thermometer to detect the temperature inside the vehicle, and a logic circuit to determine when both conditions are satisfied to call for an alarm (i.e., [a] a living being is present, and [b] the car is too hot).
■ A sensible system would prevent an alarm if it were obvious that someone was in the process of starting a car that had been sitting in a parking lot. The alarm could be locked out by the presence of a key in the ignition or for a few seconds following the opening or closing of a door. But, absent one of those conditions, the logical circuit should sound an alarm -- perhaps something just as simple as the panic alarm found in most modern cars.
■ Basic motion sensors and thermal sensors are both available for less than $100, and digital thermometers are cheap, too. Cars are already built with sensors that detect whether doors are open or shut or whether a key is in the ignition, and panic alarms are already routinely built-in. The logic could be handled by a device even cheaper than a $35 Raspberry Pi. Manufactured at scale, these detection systems should cost less than dinner and a movie and be as obvious a standard safety feature as seat belts and air bags.
■ In other words, there is no obvious logical, technological, or financial reason why cars shouldn't detect the presence of kids inside hot cars -- no matter how they got there, whether by oversight, by accident, or even by malice -- and sound an alarm loud enough to capture the attention of any bystander, summoning either the caretaker or a Good Samaritan to rescue the child.
■ Hot-car deaths are tragic and preventable, and it is a mystery why technology hasn't been applied more effectively to help. Technology itself is only as good or as bad as the people using it and the purposes they undertake. If we can find ways to excuse automakers venturing into the massive computing demands and energy consumption of cryptocurrency, then surely we should expect them to come up with low-cost technological safeguards for children in the summer heat.