Public Awareness Campaign

As discussed on my web-page titled Child Heatstroke Prevention, when I began researching these issues I came upon the NHTSA's public awareness campaign called "Where's Baby? Look Before You Lock." We are extremely grateful for NHTSA's public awareness campaign, as it is placing the issue in the public eye, opening up a certain type of dialogue around these tragedies and, hopefully, saving lives. If public awareness campaigns can reduce annual fatalities by even 25%, that is a step forward. However, our goal should be ZERO fatalities. To achieve this result, I believe we will need more than a public awareness campaign alone.

I thank my Senators Blumenthal and Murphy from Connecticut for speaking out in a letter to the NHTSA asking for the agency to focus more resources geared toward public awareness in our state in particular, following a wide range of child heat vehicle-related incidents this summer in Connecticut (see Sen. Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Murphy (D-Conn.) Letter to Acting Administrator of NHTSA, July 11, 2014).   I am sure most parents read the statistics and articles and think: "Why does this matter to ME? Its tragic, but it would never happen to ME." Well, it happened to us - we could be you, your neighbor, your best friends, your parents, your children. And, it CAN happen to you. Many experts that are proposing continued research into technological solutions posit the following reason for the ineffectiveness of a pure public awareness campaign approach: Most individuals cannot get past the "fundamental attribution error," which is a psychological concept meaning that an observer explains another's actions through looking at intrinsic factors to differentiate the other person's situation from the observer, leading to the conclusion that such person must have a certain negative trait, and the observer doesn't, so that same situation won't happen to the observer -- allowing the observer's brain to protect itself from the possibility of the most unimaginable tragedies. Therefore, most individuals will not take appropriate steps to ensure these accidental events do not occur - why should they? It won't happen to them. Right? 

The divisive issue at hand is the debate between public awareness vs. technology (see Kelly Wallace, Should the Government Step in to Prevent Hot Car Deaths?, CNN, July 15, 2014; see also NBC Today Show segment, August 4, 2010). The NHTSA study (published in 2012) found that the three devices tested in 2011 were ineffective at that time and ended the report by noting that it is possible improvements have been made in the devices since then. Representatives at state that they receive calls throughout the year about innovative technology in development, with some nearing the prototype testing phase, but many of these inventors are in need of charitable contributions or other funding for development. (See Stopping Child Deaths in Hot Cars: These Preventable Tragedies Demand Education and Technology Solutions, published by Consumer Reports, July 25, 2014). According to the 2010 NBC Today Show segment, both GM and Volvo had researched and developed sensors to detect infants left in vehicles but chose not to market those devices, due to the fact they were deemed unreliable (by GM) or a liability issue (by Volvo). NASA had also developed a device, after one of its scientists lost a child to such tragedy. Therefore, the answer to the debated question is most likely not one or the other, but both to varying degrees. 

Public awareness is the cornerstone and starting block for child heatstroke prevention efforts; however, we should broaden our horizons to discuss other building blocks that would only add to this existing campaign.

Beyond Public Awareness - A Call for a Think-Tank Approach

What is the solution?

There are several possibilities -- ranging the gamut of political theories (this is not a Republican or Democrat issue -- its a bi-partisan health and safety public policy concern). Let's explore some possibilities:

  • Pure capitalism - Can we look to auto manufacturers to act voluntarily? 
    • In 2001 GM issued a press release calling vehicular hyperthermia deaths a "serious [preventable] safety concern" and stated it intended to install a sensor in cars by 2004. This initiative has since been abandoned. Since 2001, over 520 children have died.
    • GM and other car manufacturers are calling for a pure public awareness campaign. 
    • My end conclusion is that if car manufacturers do not have to act, they will not. 
  • Can NHTSA act alone to explore this issue more, without Congressional involvement? 
    • In 2012 NHTSA announced a partnership with Safe Kids Worldwide, which is partially funded by GM. 
    • During 2011 roundtable meetings on this subject, Safe Kids USA would not discuss technological solutions. The meetings ended with a theme of "zero heatstroke deaths in 2013" and a renewed push for a pure public awareness campaign approach. 44 children died in 2013. 
    • MAP-21 was signed into law in 2012 and includes an authorization for a safety research initiative. Two years later, it is unclear whether NHTSA has even acted on this authorization and, further, how thorough any action could be without studies and expert panels, etc.
  • Does Congress need to push action? Quite possibly.
    •  This route has been successful in the past, e.g. latches to mitigate risk of trunk entrapment (2000), back-up cameras (required in cars by 2018) and brake transmission shift interlock systems.  (For example, see the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act of 2007 and Subtitle E - Child Safety Standards of MAP-21).
    • What should Congress require of NHTSA and car manufacturers? That is yet unseen. Options are: 
      • a path similar to that taken to find a solution to trunk entrapment fatalities - NHTSA study and expert panel to discuss issue and most efficient solutions (It is important to note that this process resulted in a legislative requirement that latches be installed in all vehicles);
      • funding for research; and/or
      • an actual requirement that cars come equipped with effective technology by a certain date.

If we don't have a clear path forward yet, then how do we find one quickly?

challenge manufacturers, agencies and politicians to get together with other interested parties, including victims and psychologists, and let's figure this out. Sooner than later.

In my husband's words "We can't let another family feel this pain." A Pulitzer prize winning article about this phenomenon was published in the Washington Post in 2009 and legislation was considered as early as 2006. Many have been aware of this problem for over a decade. Yes, this fleeting thought did cross my mind -- "I can't believe they've known about this for so long, and I'm just now learning about this public policy concern."  

For more ideas, see Safety Challenge for Auto Manufacturers and Government Leaders.

Open Your Mind 

Although these types of tragedies are counter-intuitive and difficult to understand, just open your ears and minds, listen, read....engage in the public discussion that may lead to innovative ideas and solutions that can help alleviate this growing problem. 

For more information on how your memory works, please see an article I found very easy to understand: The Pilot and Autopilot Within Our Mind-Brain Connection, John Lisman, January 10, 2013. 

"[O]nce a task such as driving has become a habit, you can perform another task at the same time, such as planning your day.  But looking closer at these two behaviors, driving and planning, one can see interesting differences. The Habit system that is driving you to work is non-flexible: if the new parking regulations at work require you to go left instead or right, the likelihood that you’ll go right is very high. On the other hand, if you heard yesterday that your boss has scheduled a group meeting for noon, the likehood that you’ll plan your day accordingly is high. In other words, your non-habit system is flexible." - John Lisman

Latest in the News

Automakers Never Developed Technology to Stop Hot Car Deaths. Parents and Teens Are Doing It InsteadRebecca Robins, The Washington Post, August 27, 2014.