Juan Rodriguez, a 39-year-old Army veteran, pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree reckless endangerment in the hot car deaths of his one-year-old twins last week. He was sentenced to a one-year conditional discharge.
The incident happened a year ago, when Rodriguez left his home in New York City for his job as a social worker at the VA Medical Center in the Bronx. Inside the car were his twins and four-year-old son, Tristan. Rodriguez dropped Tristan off at daycare, but then traveled to work, forgetting about the twins in the backseat.
Hours later after work, Rodriguez returned to his car, drove a short distance, and then realized the twins were still in the back. According to the New York Times, “Rodriguez jumped from his car and screamed, alerting a passer-by who called emergency services. The children were pronounced dead at the scene.”
“I assumed I had dropped them off at day care before I went to work,” he said, according to court documents. “I blanked out. My babies are dead. I killed my babies.”
Rodriguez and his wife — who begged the court for leniency and called her husband, “a good person and great father” are now trying to move on with their lives.
Darcel D. Clark, the Bronx district attorney, said, “This was a tragic, unfortunate incident.” She used the opportunity to remind parents that this can happen to others. “I hope that as the sweltering weather is upon us, caregivers will be extra vigilant about children in vehicles,” she said, per the Times.
According to national nonprofit KidsAndCars.org, the twins were two of 53 children to die in hot cars in 2019. That followed a record high of 54 hot car deaths in 2018. Tragically, nearly every state has experienced at least one death since 1998.
The Struggle to End Hot Car Tragedies
The most unfortunate part about hot car entrapment is how “it’s totally preventable,” says Amber Rollins, director of KidsandCars.org. She tells Parentology that the vast majority of deaths occur because parents are unaware that their child is in the car. Only 13% of children involved in these incidents are knowingly left by caregivers.
The technology to save potential vehicular heatstroke victims exists, ranging from simple dashboard reminders to rear-seat motion detection systems that trigger a horn alarm when activated. According to Hyundai Motor America product planning manager Trevor Lai, Hyundai “dreamt up” their back seat reminder system back in “2015.” Other automakers like Nissan, General Motors Co. (GM), Subaru, and Kia also have their own versions of rear-seat reminders, with and without motion detection. Of all the companies, GM was the first to implement this type of system into its models in 2017.
Though hot car technology is far from its beginning stages, adding it to vehicles still takes time. Hyundai just announced that by 2022, it will make its nondetective reminder system—the Rear Occupant Alert (ROA)—standard for most models.
Waiting for Legislative Approval
While technology takes time to integrate, passing legislation that mandates it is a process just as slow.
The Hot Cars Act of 2019 — one for the House and one for the Senate — marked a second attempt at making lifesaving vehicular heatstroke technology mandatory for all cars. Though both bills required that automakers integrate reminder systems into all models following its passage, they varied in the kind of technology deemed necessary. The House’s Hot Cars Act called for an in-car reminder system that visually and audibly prompted the driver to check the backseat before exiting the vehicle, as well as a rear seat motion detection system. Comparatively, the Senate’s Hot Cars Act only demanded the former—which Rollins doesn’t think was enough.
According to the Times, a number of pending automotive safety bills, including the Hot Cars Act of 2019, have been combined with a $500 billion highway bill and other measures in one immense $1.5 trillion bill called the Moving Forward Act. The House is expected to consider it soon.
A Common Ground
While Rollins and other child safety advocates believe automakers hold full responsibility of preventing hot car tragedies, automakers seem to think otherwise.
In creating their respective ROA systems, Hyundai’s “intent wasn’t necessarily to completely prevent, but instead to mitigate where we can,” Hyundai’s Lai tells Parentology. But in spite of conflict between child safety advocates like Rollins and automakers, both seem to agree that the process of developing and implementing hot car technology in all models is one that requires a great deal of patience.
Like Lai, Rollins is aware the far-reaching implications of the two reminder systems will not yield any immediate results. “Technology [and the legislation mandating its standardization] is not going to stop hot car deaths tomorrow,” she says.
Regardless, auto-industry members and child safety advocates remain hopeful their respective efforts will reduce the number of hot car deaths in the years to come.