Israel's 'Hot Car' Tech Plan to Save Children Forgotten in Vehicles Has Some Big Problems

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Israel will soon require parents to install ‘back seat alarms’ to prevent children from being forgotten in hot locked cars
Israel will soon require parents to install ‘back seat alarms’ to prevent children from being forgotten in hot locked carsCredit: Luke Sharrett/The New York Times

Israel will start requiring the use of so-called door-logic systems to prevent parents from forgetting young children in the backseats of cars during the hot summer months. 

Starting August 1, parents of children up to age four will be required to install a back seat alarm system as part of new regulations approved by the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee last week. Parents will have to pay for the system’s purchase and installation, which could cost several hundred shekels per child. 

The controversial decision has already raised a public debate and objections. One major problem is that it’s doubtful that existing technologies are effective, reliable and precise enough to substantially reduce the serious phenomenon.

For years now there are products on the market that claim to prevent the forgetting of children in cars. Hyundai offers a system it calls “Rear Occupant Alert”, General Motors and Subarau also have door-logic systems, both named Rear Seat Reminder, and Nissan offers its own “Rear Door Alert”. However, demand for these is minuscule. 

A car with sensors made by Mobileye at a technology event held by IntelCredit: John Locher/AP

Many experts think the reason is psychological: Parents believe “it won’t happen to me,” and feel install such systems would be to admit the possibility of such a tragedy happening to them. The lack of demand means that to date there aren’t any truly “smart” systems to prevent children from being forgotten. The systems that exist are far from foolproof, too complicated to use, or tend to issue false alarms, which undercut their effectiveness. 

For example, many back seat alarm products operate as such: You put something on the car seat that detects the presence of a child. If a child is detected when the motor is turned off, it issues an alarm. This means that with many products, the moment you turn off the motor, the product will beep and it won’t stop until you manually shut it or remove the child. If a few minutes pass and the child is still in the seat, the product may also send text messages to the parents or other designated contacts, or activate a siren.

It’s easy to imagine parents who will be angered at being subjected to an annoying beep every time they turn off their car regardless of whether the child has been forgotten or not – a beeping that might also wake up a child who has just fallen asleep in the backseat. The warning will also be sounded if the child is in the car when the parent stops for gas. Over time, the false alarms may lull a parent into ignoring a real one, or might simply lead the parent to disconnect the system. 

Another type of system is based on the principle of distance: A Bluetooth component is installed on the car seat, on the strap, or on the child’s clothing that is connected to the parent’s smartphone or to an accessory connected to the car keys. The idea is that if the parent distances himself more than a few meters from the child, an alarm is activated. 

Here, too, however, the system could issue false alarms – for example, if people go a certain distance from the car for only a few minutes, like to buy something in a store or pick up another child from preschool. It is also liable to malfunction in places without good cellular reception or when there are disruptions to the wireless signals, and relies on the parent remembering to take the smartphone or accessory. Parents will also have to make sure that the battery in the device is working, and to replace or charge it if it isn’t.

There are systems on the market that are more advanced and sophisticated; they are connected to the car’s own electrical system so they don’t need charging, and that will even open a window in the event they sense a child left in the car. But these must be installed by a technician and cost thousands of shekels. Some require the purchase of a SIM card with a monthly fee. Such systems will only be purchased by wealthy families; the rest will have to make do with the more basic and limited systems.

Incidentally, all such systems are aimed at one scenario: A parent who absentmindedly forgets a child in a car seat. Such technologies are no solution for kids who climb into a car on their own and lock themselves in by mistake.

‘No perfect system’ 

In the past, a standard was formulated by the Israel Standards Institution for safety systems to address these issues - but these turned out to be so stringent that no system could meet it. To open the market, the Transportation Ministry inserted several exceptions, basing itself on the Italian standard. For example, according to the new regulations, systems can be sold in Israel if they have already been “legally marketed” in North America or Europe. This indeed opens the market to many new players, but also includes simpler and cheaper systems with all their faults and limitations. Even worse, there is no incentive for companies or entrepreneurs to develop more advanced technologies. 

“Personally, I support the regulations, because I’ve seen over the years the great damage caused by this phenomenon,” says Ilan Omer, the developer of the Tinyguard system. “It’s not just children who died, but cases that aren’t even reported of kids who were forgotten in cars and suffered trauma. But existing technologies have bugs and none of them are perfect, including the sophisticated ones that cost thousands of shekels and a subscription fee; they don’t provide a sufficient solution. The original recommended Israeli standard would provide the best solution, but unfortunately, as a user and a parent, in the end the Italian standard was accepted.”

Israel's regulations for back seat alarm systems were too strict, so exceptions were made. Now some are concerned systems rife with problems will enter the market Credit: THEOBALD / BSIP / AFP

Other manufacturers who also stand to benefit from the regulations aren’t totally satisfied. “If there’s a good system that will work like it’s supposed to, I have no doubt it will save lives,” says Roi Ganan, vice president for marketing and business development at InterVox, which developed the BabyVox system. “On the other hand, I understand the argument that there’s a ‘tax’ being imposed on a very broad population. If I wasn’t in this business, it would make me pretty angry.” 

Saves lives? Not certain

Even if the systems turn out to be more effective than expected, the fear is that pooper populations or those not technologically oriented will have a hard time buying and operating them. 

Attorney Nilli Even-Chen. who appeared before the Economic Affairs Committee, said that according to statistics most instances of children forgotten in cars happen in the Arab community and among poorer communities. 

“It’s reasonable to assume that those parts of the population will not obey the regulations because of the high price and lack of access,” she said. 

In other words, the ministry will obligate hundreds of thousands of parents to pay hundreds or thousands of shekels to buy systems that are not effective enough to achieve their purpose. It’s no surprise, therefore, to learn that only one other country, Italy, has obligated parents to install such systems. It isn’t clear whether the ministry is unaware of the limitations or is simply ignoring them, but either way the situation only strengthens the claims made by some observers that the ministry’s judgment was swayed by considerations unrelated to keeping young children safe. 

It is worth recalling that some car manufacturers are already integrating technologies to prevent forgotten children into certain models. These are smart solutions that are far more precise; for example, sensors and cameras that scan the passenger compartment once the car is locked and can detect a child in the back seat. Manufacturers are also integrating systems based on the state of the doors: The car recognizes when a door was opened and closed before a drive, but not reopened after the journey was completed.

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