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Researchers at the University of Waterloo have developed a new device to prevent drivers from leaving children or pets alone in vehicles, which they hope will help save lives in hot and extremely cold weather.

The small device, which can be mounted on a rear-view mirror and connected to a vehicle’s electronic system, uses electromagnetic waves and signal-processing technology to identify objects, people and animals inside a car. If it senses that a child or pet has been left behind, it can prevent the car doors from locking, sound an alarm, and switch on the car lights, said George Shaker, adjunct assistant professor in the university’s departments of electrical and computer engineering and mechanical and mechatronics engineering.

Thus, even if a driver intentionally leaves a child or pet unattended while running an errand, “it’s embarrassing for them to leave a car in this state, so everybody in the parking lot will hear,” Dr. Shaker said.

According to a paper published in July in the journal Paediatrics and Child Health, a research team led by The Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto found six reported child deaths in hot cars in Canada since 2013, an average of one per year. In the United States, an average of 37 children die annually due to overheating in parked vehicles. Although a few incidents of children freezing to death in vehicles have been reported in the media over the years, it is unclear how often this occurs.

Most child deaths in hot cars happen when a parent or caregiver has forgotten a child is in the vehicle, said Joelene Huber, a developmental pediatrician at SickKids and an author of the Canadian paper.

Such incidents can come when parents or caregivers have developed a routine, Dr. Huber said.

“Your brain has this ability for routine tasks to kind of go on auto-pilot," she said, explaining this frees people up to multi-task, or turn their attention to other things while performing habitual tasks. But when parents or caregivers have a change in routine, such as dropping off a child at daycare when they usually do not, their prospective memory – that is, their intention to perform a task in the future – may be forgotten as the brain goes into auto-pilot mode, she said.

Key Dismukes, a U.S. expert on prospective memory and its role in human error, said it is impossible to keep intentions in the forefront of attention for an extended period.

“As tragic as this is, forgetting something so important [as a child in the car] is not usually an indication of lack of conscientiousness; it’s just the way our brains work,” said Dr. Dismukes, retired chief scientist in aerospace human factors at NASA.

After a while, intentions become stored in long-term memory, he said, explaining that research suggests people retrieve them into awareness only when they notice some cue in the environment or their stream of consciousness that is related to those intentions.

Dr. Dismukes said high-tech sensors might provide the cues drivers need, but he said it is important to ensure they are noticeable enough that people do not become habituated to them.

At the University of Waterloo, Dr. Shaker noted U.S. lawmakers are considering regulations to require child-detection systems in new vehicles. In Italy, a similar law went into effect earlier this month.

Some systems use ultrasound sensors or cameras, but both types of technology have limitations, he said. For example, some people object to using cameras for security reasons, while ultrasonic senors tend to be bulky and costly.

The device he and his team developed is inexpensive and measures about three centimetres by three centimetres, he said. While he declined to name the auto parts manufacturer that helped fund it, he said the aim is to have the device on the market by the end of 2020.

Dr. Dismukes said even low-tech cues can remind drivers a child is in the back seat, such as tying a child’s toy to the gear shift.

But the biggest safeguard is to recognize everyone is vulnerable, he said. “If we can just get that thought out to everybody, I think the accident rate will go down.”

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