Infant in car seat

Students use tech to prevent infant deaths in hot cars

In response to the US seeing a rise in infant heatstroke deaths in hot cars over the past several summers, two Harvard students combined their skills to develop a pressure sensor system to help prevent further tragedies.

In recent years, the US has seen a spike in the number of infants and toddlers who have died from heatstroke as a result of being left unattended in hot cars, with 39 recorded in 2016.

Jan Null, meteorologist and professor at the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science, San Jose State University, began tracking US heatstroke deaths of children left in cars 15 years ago. Since then, 682 children have died in hot cars.

According to Null, who posts the data he collects at noheatstroke.org in the period 1998 to October 2016, the following circumstances accounted for the deaths: 54 per cent (376 children) were ‘forgotten’ by their care provider; 28 per cent (198) were playing in an unattended vehicle; 17 per cent (120) were intentionally left in a vehicle by an adult; and 1 per cent (6) died in unknown circumstances. More than half of the deaths were found to be children under two years of age.

Such deaths are a parent or care provider’s worst nightmare and it’s easy for people to react with disbelief or self-righteous judgement, but data shows that there are no consistent profiles of parents who have found themselves in this situation. The statistics show that parent-involved fatalities can occur for many reasons and to anyone regardless of wealth, social status, age or ethnicity. As Null maintains: “a whole range of people can get distracted and leave their child in the car. It can happen to anybody.”

Null’s data demonstrates that mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers; and it happens to the chronically absent-minded as well as the obsessively organised, to the university graduate and the under-educated alike. In the last ten years, it’s happened to a dentist, a pizza chef, an engineer, a police officer, a barista, a lawyer, a nurse, a judge and a construction worker, among many others. You get the picture.

Couple these facts with what we know of the stresses and strains of modern life – the sleep-deprived parent taking a different route, the over-taxed brain of the stressed-out worker unexpectedly doing the nursery run – together with a lack of understanding around how quickly a warm day turns a hot car into a death chamber and it’s not hard to understand how it can happen.

Twenty years ago, these types of deaths were relatively rare, but a number of factors has conspired to set the scene for enabling them. In the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car. This was followed with the instruction, again for added safety for the very young, that baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. The result is reduced visibility of a child in the back of a car and the potential for catastrophe.

Set against this backdrop of having created a less safe environment through the application of increased safety measures, it’s no surprise that these incidences have started to increase. Whilst the numbers are exceeded by the number of deaths due to collisions, this worrying trend and the reasons behind it have led to increased scrutiny and the introduction to the US House of Representatives, and subsequent passing into law, of the Hot Cars Act 2016.

A critical piece of legislation introduced in September this year, the Act calls on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require that all new vehicles have life-saving technology in place by 2019 to alert drivers that there is a child in the back seat. New, technologically sophisticated cars already have systems in place to remind drivers when they’ve failed to put on their seat belts or forgotten to turn off their headlights or left their keys in the car when they’ve reached their destination, but lack the one sensor that could save lives.

Some car-makers are already implementing some technological fixes to address the problem, although at present the emphasis appears to be on a warning tone urging drivers to look in the back; but what of the millions of older makes and models of cars already in circulation?

Enter Chirp, the brainchild of Harvard students Risham Dhillon and Phoebe Stoye. Developed in response to news reports of infant heatstroke deaths in hot cars, the two students co-founded their start-up earlier this year in a bid to combine their expertise and develop a tech-driven car seat alert system to help prevent such tragedies.

Stoye, a neurobiology student, has experience in electrical engineering and also conducts infant development research at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Dhillon, a computer scientist, has several industry internships under her belt focused on the use of sensors in the Internet of Things (IoT). Their system uses sensor technology and a mobile app to warn parents and care providers when babies are in danger of being left alone in car seats.

Chirp is a surprisingly simple technology comprising one sensor plus one smart phone, but with profound potential. As Stoye explains: “when a baby sits in a car seat, our technology solution turns on a Bluetooth signal which is then transmitted to a phone. When a parent walks too far away from the baby in the car seat, an alert is sent to the phone.”

The solution is in the form of a pressure sensor which can be easily installed under the lining of a car seat. An Arduino circuit board connected to the sensor synchronises with the Chirp app on a parent’s mobile phone and when the sensor is activated by the baby’s weight, the parent’s phone will repeatedly vibrate and beep if he or she walks far enough away from the car seat. The phone won't stop buzzing and beeping until the parent moves closer.

The system uses low-energy Bluetooth technology to activate the mobile phone as well as measuring the signal strength between the phone and sensor, which is how Chirp determines that a parent or care provider has walked too far away.

As a venture team in the Harvard Innovation Lab and through Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences’ course ‘Start-up R&D’, Stoye and Dhillon are continuing to refine the prototype and develop their start-up, with plans to reach out to car seat manufacturers to incorporate the solution into their products.

In addition, they are working on new features that will allow the system to connect to more than one mobile device, and are also looking to include SMS text messaging service functionality so that a different emergency contact could receive text message alerts from Chirp.

One challenge the two students are working to tackle is the issue of phones running out of battery charge and not connecting to the sensor. A parent might not notice that the battery has run out of charge and the phone is therefore no longer connected to the car seat, creating a window for error and a potentially dangerous situation. By sending a text message to an emergency contact, Chirp could alert a different care provider that the baby is in the car seat.

By targeting car seat manufacturers, the students hope their life-saving technology can be spread more widely. In addition, they’re eager to contribute to the discussion on all fronts, including research, advocacy and policy.

“We are strong believers that you can use simple technology to make a great impact,” Dhillon maintains. “At the end of the day, if our work is able to save one baby’s life, it will have been worth it.”

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