Hundreds of children die in car fires every year.  Some advocates say better security technology should be required.

Hundreds of children die in car fires every year. Some advocates say better security technology should be required.

Three years ago, police investigated Tyler Cestia for negligent homicide after he left his 2 1/2-year-old son, Thomas, in his truck at work on a hot summer day.

“In my mind, I remember thinking, ‘well, I don’t remember walking into the sitter’s house to drop off Thomas; I don’t remember that,'” said Cestia. “I just said to myself, ‘it can’t be. There’s no way.’

Cestia said the confluence of circumstances created a perfect storm that June morning. Initially he was not supposed to let go of Thomas, and the little boy sat in his brother’s car seat behind the driver – out of sight. Cestia said she was also recovering from COVID, which gave her brain fog, and her mind was busy with inspections at work. Six hours into her work day, she realized she never left her son that morning.

“I ran to the car to see and, unfortunately, my worst fears were realized,” he said.

His wife Pamela received the call and ran as fast as she could to the office parking lot.

“I kind of didn’t know how fast the kids could go in the car,” Pamela said. “So, I drove like crazy to Tyler’s job and then I saw Thomas, and he was gone. I just broke down when I saw and knew what happened.”

It was a moment he had trouble processing — a moment he said he couldn’t imagine ever happening to his family.

“I think before this incident, I was a little judgmental about it and thinking about how people leave their kids in the car and forget about their kids,” Pamela said. “I think, now, that anyone can leave their children in the car and forget them. It can be, something else in your mind at that time, a normal change, which can happen to anyone.”

Police ruled the death an accident.

The summer heat turns deadly

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns much of the US will see above-average temperatures and dangerous heat this summer. For some children, it has already been fatal.

Last month in South Carolina, a 3-year-old child grew up the first death by a hot car of the year, after crawling behind a car and getting caught.

A few weeks later in West Virginia, a A 3-month-old baby died in the car after the police said it appeared that the child was left unintentionally while the parent was at work.

According to data from the advocacy group Children and Car Safety, on average, 38 children die each year from heat stroke in the car. In the last three decades, more than 1,000 children have died in these incidents.

CBS News data analysis shows 83% of all motor vehicle deaths more than six years ago it happened between May and September – at least one death every week during the hot summer season. It does not occur only in states with warmer temperatures. The analysis shows a motor vehicle fatality reported in nearly every state.

“Quite frankly, we’re surprised it doesn’t happen more often,” said Janette Fennell, co-founder and president of Kids and Car Safety.

Fennell said after the introduction of dual front airbags, parents moved infant car seats to the back seats for safety reasons. At that time, he explained, they began to notice the increasing trend of parents forgetting their children in cars.

“During the transition, nothing was done to change the way we notify people if children are left alone in cars,” he said. “So, it’s a direct correlation of keeping children in the back seat out of sight, out of sight, and then the number of deaths from hot vehicles continues to rise..”

An average of 38 children die each year from heat stroke in a hot car


Turning to technology

Over the past few years, companies have created technological advances to help reduce the chances of children being left in cars and dying. Automakers have been working on safety systems that can provide alerts to remind drivers to check for children who may be in cars, or even detect an abandoned child.

“We’ve seen tremendous innovation over the past few years, following automakers’ commitment in 2019 to integrate these technologies into all new vehicles,” said Hilary Cain, with the auto industry trade group Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

The 2021 infrastructure law included a requirement for all automakers to install an audible and visual rear seat reminder alert in all new passenger vehicles beginning in the 2025 model year. More they have already done this – voluntarily.

Fennell argues the law and technology don’t go far enough.

“What is written in the law is a kind of system to remind drivers,” he said. “We’ve been working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and they know that’s not an adequate solution. In fact, we as an organization have documented the deaths of six children who have died in vehicles that have the recall, so it’s clearly ineffective.”

Interview with Janette Fennell of Children and Car Safety about protecting children from hot cars


The Cestias had the same technology in their truck when Thomas died.

“The way we’ve always thought about how technology worked in a truck was based on weight,” said Tyler Cestia. “You know, you have a baby in the chair, (from) the weight.”

While some vehicles have weight sensors, the Cestias truck used door logic technology that only alerts the driver to check the back seat at the end of the trip if the back door has been opened and closed at the beginning of the trip. Tyler described the alert as similar to a beep that reminds you to put on your seat belt.

“We had a false sense of security and a backseat reminder,” Pamela Cestia said.

NHTSA issued a written response to questions from CBS News, which said: “NHTSA is researching technologies and solutions that may provide greater safety benefits beyond the mandated minimum, including detection technology for unattended occupants.”

Radar technology

Cestias advocates for the administration to require more advanced technology such as radar systems that not only provide reminders but also detect movement. They can even feel the baby’s breathing.

“So, the difference between this and a normal alert reminder … is that this detects the presence of life,” explained Tyler.
Warga, along with automotive technology manufacturer Bosch. “It is true to make a transfer in the child’s chest, and so you are talking millimeters in terms of the type of movement that can be observed.”

Some Hyundai Genesis models offer what it calls an advanced rear occupant alert system, which uses rear seat alert and radar technology. It also sends alerts to parents even when they are not in the car.

“If the sensor detects movement in the vehicle, you’ll turn off the horn and you’ll also get a notification on your smart app,” said Stephanie Beeman, manager of vehicle safety, compliance and regulatory affairs. Hyundai America Technical Center.

We asked the Alliance for Automotive Innovation why it doesn’t use the radar technology some experts consider the gold standard for safety.

“Automakers want to offer technologies that best meet the needs of their customers, and so there are a variety of options for them to do that, and radar technology will be one of those options,” Hilary Cain said. “There are a lot of people buying cars today who don’t have kids and they may not need or want these systems. Since these systems will be standard on all cars, there will be a cost, you know, and reflected in the price of the car for the technology so, providing a variety of technology may offer buyers who don’t like the technology, a lower price than they would otherwise have.”

Hilary Cain, of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, on how technology can help protect children in cars


According to government documentsa radar upgrade would cost car buyers about $20.

“Companies will go this way,” Cain said. “They’re already going that way. We just – you’ve got to give them time to do that.”

But Pamela and Tyler Cestia believe if the radar technology had been in their truck three years ago, Thomas would still be alive.

“The gold standard has to be reached,” Tyler Cestia said. “There is a better technology that is better than the existing technology, and there is no reason for another parent to go through it.”