Safety Challenge for Auto Manufacturers and Government Leaders

A New Conversation

During the last decade, safety experts, government officials and automobile manufacturers have become increasingly aware of the grave risk of child vehicular heatstroke deaths. Legislation has been proposed and shut down; automobile manufacturers, including GM and Volvo, have researched safety devices but none have been launched; NHTSA has studied devices and seemingly closed the book on that avenue for now; inventors have sought funding, yet it is hard to come by; public awareness initiatives have been launched but lives are still being lost. There is a division among the ranks, leading to indecision and stagnation. Why? 

I suggest it is because we are approaching this issue in the same way we approach politics and other issues of national importance generally, from a standpoint of left versus right, right versus wrong, conservative versus liberal, avoidance versus action, win versus lose -- which always leads to a standstill. Grey is the color of this public policy concern, it is not black or white.

I also suggest that this issue will remain unresolved until the conversation changes. I cannot personally change the minds of a majority of Americans, nor do I want or need to. We only need a few strong individuals, creative, open-minded individuals, to take a stand. Who will it be? I do not know yet. Nor do I have answers yet as to how to solve the issue of child vehicular heatstroke deaths....only ideas and topics to initiate the new conversation. 

One truth I have found is that, because of the unique (often contentious, divisive and controversial nature of this topic), public figures and auto manufacturers can easily sit back and let the sparks fly and take a seemingly "neutral" avenue moving forward, one that neither commits nor shows lack of concern. Let the general public fight it out, take sides, blame parents, psychologically distance themselves from this risk...and wait it out until the dust settles, the quiet returns...and, still, nothing will happen. 

But, no more, we need change. We need to think outside the box. Look where we've been, where we are, and where we can go. Take the entire amalgamation of old ideas and create the new.

Just as I do not pretend to have the "correct" solution yet, or even think there is only one solution, neither do I project that this path will be linear. I cannot guess whether we will solve this problem through capitalism and independent innovation or through government involvement, or some combination of the two, whether together or in phases. But, we have to get the ball moving.

[See new blog post: Defining the New Conversation: Looking at the Real Numbers (Aug. 21, 2014)]

Starting Point: Current Innovation at Its Best

"It is never an idea, technology, market forces, or access to capital that makes a company innovative. What differentiates an innovative company from an average company is the people working inside the company." 

- Jag Randhawa, The Bright Idea Box: A Proven System to Drive Employee Engagement and Innovation


In 1978, NHTSA initiated the 5-Star Safety Ratings Program to measure the level of increased safety for vehicle occupants in frontal crashes, which evolved to include side crash and rollover safety. NHTSA itself has recognized the value of innovation, even before or beyond government regulation, as often most efficient way to enhance vehicle safety - quickly. "As the 5-Star Safety Ratings of vehicles improved, the agency looked for new ways to encourage the continuous advancement of vehicle safety," reads the NHTSA 5-Star Safety Ratings FAQ, "beyond what is required by Federal law." The 5-Star Safety Ratings system measures vehicles for overall crash; frontal crash; side crash; and rollover safety. NHTSA also includes recommendations for technology that can enhance each vehicle's safety profile, including rearview video systems, forward collision warnings, and lane departure warnings. Consumer Reports, Guide to Safety Features: These Features Can Help Make Driving Safer (January 2014), similarly highlights the importance of forward collision avoidance alerts, blind spot warnings, lane departure warnings, backup cameras, and telematics. Many of these recommended technologies recognize and correct for the innate fallibility of the human driver, and most automobile manufacturers' websites include legal disclaimers that such technology does not eliminate the existing responsibility of drivers to exercise safe driving habits. In fact, NHTSA even began studying V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle communication) as early as 2002, and in 2011, joined forces with eight automakers (Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai-Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagon) to explore V2X (vehicle-to-environment) technology, such as blind spot, lane change and forward collision alerts, as a way to enhance safety. See Consumer Reports article, Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communication Can Prevent Crashes (April 2012). You can also view the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety Ratings and Consumer Reports Car Safety Reviews.

Let's see what a few of the companies that have manufactured some of the most highly rated vehicles in terms of safety have been doing recently (note, that this list is not inclusive of all vehicles that contain innovative technology, nor does it encompass all such technologies that may be offered in these vehicles listed):

Honda® Odyssey 

"For all of life's surprises," Honda offers many safety features in its Odyssey, which was named, "2014 Best Minivan for Families," by U.S. News & World Report, including a rearview camera (standard), forward collision and lane departure warning (standard), and other Bluetooth® technology (models may vary). 

[This commercial made me cry. Not sure why yet. But, it did. Maybe it was the assurances and hope.]

Kia® Sedona 

"A smarter way to take on the world," the 2014 Kia Sedona, obtaining an overall 5-star crash safety rating, offers a backup warning system (standard), rear camera display (standard on EX model), and other Bluetooth® wireless technology (standard). 

Certain Kia vehicles, including the 2013 Sorento and Sportage, offer UVO® technology, which enables you to integrate a compatible smart phone with your vehicle. UVO® offers certain entertainment, maintenance and diagnostics, parking reminders, and 911 connection services, among other benefits. 

Mazda® CX-5  

Mazda's 2015 CX-5 was named a 2014 Top Safety Pick Plus by the IIHS when equipped with available Smart City Brake Support. Other features offered include blind spot monitoring, rearview camera, and Bluetooth® technology. 

Mazda is committed to "shaping a future in which cars, people and the environment can exist in harmony," and aims to achieve this goal, in part, through enhanced safety performance. One of Mazda's existing innovations is its i-ACTIVSENSE technology, which integrates a rear vehicle monitoring, lane departure warning system and forward obstruction warning, among other things. 

Jeep® Grand Cherokee


Committing to "being a second set of eyes," with its safety features, the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee was named a 2013 IIHS Top Safety Pick and received a 5-Star Side Crash Rating, and offers a rear back-up camera, blind spot monitoring and forward collision monitoring (models may vary).

GMC® Acadia


The 2014 GMC Acadia, with a 5-Star Overall Vehicle Score for safety, offers a rear vision camera, forward collision alert and lane departure warning, side blind zone alert and rear cross traffic alert, and GMC Intellilink capabilities (see Crossover Vehicle Technology: GMC Intellilink), models may vary.

Infiniti® QX60

The Infiniti® QX60, selected as a finalist for AOL Autos 2013 Technology of the Year Award, due to its Backup Collision Intervention, also offers an Around View® monitor, giving you a 360 bird's eye view of your surroundings on your car's display, Infiniti Connectionfor digital applications and remote services, Blind Spot Intervention®, Lane Departure Prevention, and Intelligent Brake Assist with Forward Collision Warning.

Volvo® XC60

The Volvo XC60 earned its place as a IIHS 2014 Top Safety Pick and received a 5-Star Overall, Front and Side Crash rating. Volvo combines its IntelliSafe technology (automatic breaking system, rear alerts, blind spot information, and Lane Keeping Aid) with its Sensus system, which "turns your Volvo into a smart phone on wheels." Commercial below is looking forward to the future of its 2015 V60.

As Volvo looks to the future, the company promises states "we won't rest until you are 100% safe." With what they call Vision 2020, Volvo aspires to an accident free future - by 2020, that no one will be seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo. They reiterate that as parents and customers, we love our kids, and so do they, stating the following: "which is why we are working hard to keep them safe." 

[Okay. This commercial won. It made me sob, uncontrollably sob to be specific. To mirror the driver's comments: "I spent my entire childhood seeing the world in reverse, and I loved every minute of it. It was our own little world. But then, you grow up. And there is no going back. But, its okay. Its just a new kind of adventure. And, really, who wants to look backward when you can look forward?]

Working Toward a Solution: From the Old to the New

How do we move forward? We need two things to start: 

1. Leaders -- those few who will rise to the occasion and be strong enough to take a stand and push for change.

2. Thinkers, innovators -- those who can take the pot of old ideas, stir it a bit, and come up with the new. 

For example, let's start over at the beginning and focus in on the events that precipitated the rise of child vehicular heatstroke deaths in the early- to mid-1990s. Momentarily strip out intentional child vehicular heatstroke deaths and set aside (for a different, separate discussion) deaths caused by children climbing and getting trapped inside parked vehicles. (The latter is a nuance to the problem that also must be addressed, though it may require a different approach and solution. It is important to note that latches are required by law to be included in trunks to mitigate risk of children dying of heatstroke after becoming trapped.) After stripping out those two scenarios, we are left with accidental deaths of children being left in the backseat of cars unattended. This phenomenon can be statistically traced to overpowered airbags being added to cars in the early 1990s, which caused a rise in deaths of children riding in front seats.  States quickly began enacting requirements that young children be placed in the backseats of cars and in a rear-facing position for certain ages. This reduced visibility. After such laws were passed and airbag deaths decreased, heatstroke deaths continued to rise. From 1993 onward, the number of heatstroke deaths per year has outnumbered those from airbag deaths, except for 1999 (34 airbag deaths versus 32 heatstroke deaths). 

So, how can we develop a solution to help mitigate the risk that flows from rear-facing car seats, which would add to current public awareness campaigns calling upon parents to recognize the reality of the risk and remain vigilant? One option is to take the camera concept (see the GMC Acadia commercial above) and combine it with the already-evolving Bluetooth technologies, such as GMC's Intellilink or Volvo's IntelliSafe. How much would it cost to add a camera to view children in rear-facing positions and link this to the car's video screen on the front console and, even further, to link it to a smart phone? This not only reduces risks of child vehicular heat stroke deaths, but would be extremely useful for all parents who need to view children in rear-facing positions to mitigate risks of aspiration from spit-up or choking from small toys or food, just to name a few.

What other options are out there? How can we alert parents to children remaining in vehicles after the engine is off or to children entering and becoming trapped in unattended cars? Other monitors, weight-bearing systems, seat belt alerts? If car manufacturers can develop those innovative technologies above, they can certainly develop these solutions. Other inventors not affiliated with automobile companies can add to the pot of ideas; the government could support research and development; eventually these devices or cameras could be required in cars.

The path may be non-linear, but it must be travelled. 

Who will it be?