How will we recognize an emergency when we finally need to?

Silence the Horns Editorial, Winter 2016

Research tells us that from 2008 through 2014, approximately 38 children per year have died of heat stroke as a result of being in a hot car. Of those, 15 to 25 were left in a car unintentionally, having been forgotten by a caregiver upon arrival at a destination. Others may be left in a car intentionally, because a caregiver is not aware of automobile-related heatstroke. Still other unattended children enter parked cars, knowing nothing of the risk of heatstroke, or how quickly a child's temperature can rise inside a hot car. 1

Many people have come around to realizing that caregivers who unintentionally leave a child in a car after reaching a destination are no different than any among us, and that what has happened to them and to their children could easily happen to any family. 2 3 More is learned all the time about the brain, memory, attention, spatial shifts, event shifts, new routines, distraction, fatigue, and forgetting. 4 5 Agencies and child safety advocacy groups have created educational and awareness campaigns for preventive measures to avert such unnecessary tragedy. 6 7 8

Technology to prevent caregivers from forgetting children in cars has been available for years, and attempts to create more robust technology are in development. It is deceptively difficult to create one perfect technological solution to remind drivers to check the back seat, and to warn drivers to return to the car because a sentient being has been detected in the car. 9 And even if a particular device is reliable, its use will be an evolving work in progress as a child outgrows the car seat that is integrated with the device. Currently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is studying such technological devices. 10

Most of the notification systems listed in the NHTSA functional assessment of unattended child reminder systems report use non-auditory methods or auditory methods that target a smart phone or dedicated key fob. But at least one system uses the car's horn.

We don't think that it's a good idea for any child left-behind alert system to use the sound of a car horn - but not for the reason you would think. The horn is a safety device, intended to warn of danger or hazard. If ever there were a situation that called for a blasting horn or any kind of audible vehicle alarm, this has to be it - no question.

But it would be a terrible idea for use in the North American market. Our communities and soundscapes, urban and suburban, town and country, are saturated with horn-based alert sounds that herald mundane events. If a caregiver leaving a child behind in a car has mentally processed having dropped the child off elsewhere, and walks away from the car, what are the chances that a honking horn or similar alarm will be associated with a tragedy in progress? How would any of us know? If a pedestrian walks through a parking lot where a child left-behind alert system is sounding a horn, how will that bystander know that the sound is any different than a false security alarm?

Ford and GM vehicle alerts "scold" drivers with a blasting horn for leaving a key in the car, even when the key is a spare. The Volt uses a horn to notify its owner that a battery is charged, and Nissan and GM use a horn to let their owners (and everyone at the gas station) know how filling tires with air is going, even though one has only to check the visual on the pressure gauge. And every automaker except Toyota has integrated horn honking with smartphones, with round-the-world honking capability in all but Volvo cars. 11 12 13 14 15

Misuse of a vehicle safety device has destroyed sleep, created safety hazards for cyclists and other drivers, degraded residential and natural settings, and created tension among neighbors. We could harness its use as it was intended to be used except that now we can't, because its true meaning has gotten lost.

Update: General Motors has created a reminder system that doesn't use a horn, described here. Additionally, a member of Congress introduced H.R.2801, the HOT CARS Act of 2017 in June of 2017.

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