Quebec coroner says mandatory vehicle alert systems could prevent deaths in hot cars

By The Canadian Press
July 6, 2018 - 10:00am

MONTREAL — Two years after a baby died of heatstroke when he was forgotten in a car on a sweltering day, a Quebec coroner is calling for all vehicles sold in Canada to be equipped with an alert system to prevent similar tragedies.

Denyse Langelier says existing technology such as weight sensors, cameras or alert messages could save lives, but that there is no rule in place requiring manufacturers to install them.

In an age where cars come equipped with an increasing array of high-tech gadgets, she says there's no reason they can't also come with a reliable system to remind parents of their children's presence.

"We have alerts if someone is in the front seat next to us, if someone is in front of us, and the manufacturers aren't capable of finding a mechanism or system for their base model cars?" she said in a phone interview.

"I think there will have to be an effort that is made so that they are installed, that it gets done."

Langelier made the recommendation as she released her report into the death of a baby who was left in hot car north of Montreal in August 2016.

The 11-month-old infant was found lifeless in a car seat several hours after his father forgot to drop him off at a daycare in Saint-Jerome.

According to the report, the father left the home with his three children at about 7 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 17.

But after dropping off the older two children at camp, he went home instead of to the daycare.

The mistake was only noticed at about 4:30 p.m., after the father went to pick up the child from the daycare and realized he'd been left in the car instead.

The report concluded the child died of hyperthermia on a day when the temperature outside ranged from 25 C to 28 C. The death was ruled accidental.

It's unclear how many children die of heatstroke in hot vehicles in Canada every year.

Langelier says her report is the second of three coroner's investigations into hot car deaths in the province.

The third was opened only weeks ago, after a six-month-old baby boy was found dead by his father who forgot him in the car while he was at work in Montreal.

But Langelier says similar incidents occur far more often, even if they're never reported, because they're caught in time.

Forgetfulness is a "natural mechanism," she says, and parents can easily get distracted or switch to autopilot if they're tired or their routines change.

"It's important for parents to be sensitive to that and not to think it couldn't happen to them," she said. 

For that reason, she says every car needs to be equipped with a "passive" system that can't be turned off, similar to a seat-belt warning.

Possibilities include apps to text parents, dashboard messages and weight sensors that go off if a driver forgets something in the back seat.

She also cited an award-winning science fair project by a pair of Montreal-area high-school girls who invented a sensor system that sends an alert to parents who leave their cars without their children.

Transport Canada has also conducted studies using motion sensors or carbon dioxide detectors to detect breathing, but has thus far concluded they aren't reliable enough, according to the coroner's report.

Langelier acknowledges the agency won't certify anything before it's proven to be failsafe, which means it may be a long time before rules can be put in place.

In the meantime, she's urging parents to devise their own systems to ensure their children aren't forgotten.

Those can include placing a cellphone or lunch bag in the back seat, having partners call each other to check in or setting an alert on their phones to ring at drop-off time.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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