Italy now requires car seat alarms to prevent hot-car deaths in children, and the US may follow suit

Kelly Burch
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  • A new law in Italy will require drivers to install alarms in car seats. The mechanism is designed to keep parents from forgetting a child in a car, and prevent deaths from heat stroke.
  • In the U.S., where 52 children have died in hot cars this year, advocates say that a whole-car alarm system is more efficient, since up to one-third of children who die in hot cars are not in car seats. 
  • Legislation has been submitted in the House of Representatives to require such systems in vehicles and the US auto industry has agreed to make these mainstream by 2025.
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Italy has become the first country to require drivers to equip their vehicles with car seat alarms, a measure that aims to prevent hot-car deaths in children. 

A new law in Italy will require drivers to install an alarm in car seats

The law, which took effect on Nov. 7, applies to anyone who drives a child younger than 4. Those drivers are now required to fit car seats with alarms, which alert them when a child is in the car, CNN reported. Some of the devices make a sound when a person exits the vehicle, while others send a notification to a person's phone when they've ventured a significant distance. The ultimate goal is to remind a parent to take the child out of the car with them to prevent serious injuries, and heatstroke, which can be fatal. 

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A similar effort is underway in the United States, where 54 children died last year as a result of being left in cars. 

"This is something that no one can wrap their head around happening to them," said Amber Rollins, director of Kids and Cars, an organization in the US that aims to prevent automobile-related deaths in children. "That's why we feel the technology is so important."

Children ages 3 and under are most at risk for being left in a hot car, Rollins said. Car seat alarms, like those now required in Italy, address that risk. However, as many as one-third of children who die in hot cars, do not use car seats, which means the measure could fall short.

Car seat alarms could help prevent parents from accidentally leaving their children in cars

That's why Kids and Cars is advocating for whole-car alarm systems, Rollin said. 

Last year was the most deadly year on record in the US for hot-car deaths. But 2019 could be even worse. Already, 52 children have died this year, according to data collected by Kids and Cars. In these situations, children typically succumb to heatstroke. Even with the windows cracked, a car can reach 125 degrees in mere minutes. A child's body overheats up to five times more quickly than an adult's body. 

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Many more children sustain injuries like dehydration and lifelong brain injuries stemming from heat stroke that occurs after being left in vehicles. However, data on those injuries is harder to come by, Rollins said. 

Most cases of children left in vehicles involved loving, attentive parents who became distracted, according to a 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post report

This year alone, 52 children have died in the US as a result of having been left in cars

In these situations, the person's brain essentially goes on autopilot, and they aren't able to focus on changes in routine. This is more of a risk in people who are fatigued, which is true of nearly all parents of babies and young children.

This was likely what happened to Juan Rodriguez last summer when he left his 1-year-old twins in the car all day while he was at work. 

That morning, Rodriquez, an Iraq War veteran, dropped his 4-year-old at daycare. While driving to his next stop, the facility his twins attended, there was a construction detour, which altered Rodriquez's standard route. He ended up driving straight to his job at a VA hospital in the Bronx, where he worked as a social worker. When he arrived, he said he forgot that his twins, Phoenix and Luna, were in the back. 

Last summer, a father left his twins in the backseat all day and they both died

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On his way home, he drove off the road when he realized the twins had been left in the car the entire day. The babies were pronounced dead at the scene. 

"I blanked out. My babies are dead," Rodriquez told police. "I killed my babies," 

He was initially charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, but it's not clear whether the case will move forward after a grand jury failed to act in September, The Journal News reported. 

Rollins said that few people recognize that everyone is at risk for leaving their kids in a car.

"People don't believe this could happen to them," she said. "That's probably the most dangerous mindset a person could have. Because when you distance yourself, you're not taking steps to protect your kids."

The US is considering a bill that would require alarms in all cars

That's why universal technology — like the kind adopted in Italy — is so important. 

In the United States, the Hot Cars Act of 2019 was introduced in the House of Representative in June. The bill would require automakers to equip all new cars with a child safety alert system that tells parents when a child is in the back seat. The bill has bipartisan support, Rollins said, but has not yet had a hearing. 

The automotive industry is slowly getting on board with integrating systems to reduce children's deaths in hot cars. In September, the industry voluntarily agreed to install safety systems in all new cars by 2025. Some manufacturers, including GM, Nissan and Subaru, already include systems that alert drivers about passengers in the rear seat, although Rollins says the current systems are imperfect. 

Although it's nearly winter in the United States, it's still crucial that parents continue to be aware of the risk of hot-car deaths. Children can die even when it's as cool as 57 degrees outside a vehicle. That's why Rollins wants to see the United States follow Italy's lead.

"It's a horrific, horrific death," Rollins said. "When we have something to protect children, why wouldn't we be using it?"

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