When the automobile was first invented, protecting the driver—let alone the passenger—wasn’t a consideration. So, it’s no surprise that child safety in a motor vehicle was non-existent. Nowadays, there are stringent rules covering virtually every aspect of child passenger safety. These range from which type of car seat to use for different stages of physical development to where little ones are allowed to sit. With self-driving cars on the horizon, one wonders how autonomous vehicle makers will protect these unique passengers.
Historical automobile-based child safety concerns
CDC child injury fatality statistics
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), transportation is the number one cause of injury deaths for children ages 0-19, with the highest rate of fatalities suffered as occupants in an automobile. With human error the main cause of car deaths, many look toward the adoption of autonomous vehicles as a way to significantly reduce traffic incidents. The focus of innovation, however, has largely been on the general maneuverability and safety of these cars on the road. Situations have recently occurred that call into question the viability of auto-pilot/self-driving systems in case of unforeseen circumstances, but here, again, the problems have largely been human fallibility, not mechanical.
First, let’s take a look at how this dilemma has been faced from the beginning.
The genesis of automotive child safety
Regardless of early attempts in the late 1700s, the car was first truly made viable in the late 1800s. There were no traffic lights and stop signs on the road; no windows or seat belts in automobiles. Collision avoidance systems were relegated to horns or shouting out to pedestrians, “watch out!” Brakes were rudimentary hand affairs similar to that in bicycles—and some cars didn’t have brakes at all. Getting the public to embrace this new form of horseless carriage and deal with the fallout from accidents or breakdowns were already a challenge. Focusing on child safety, specifically, didn’t come into play at all.
By 1933, however, it became apparent that some sort of child restraint system had to be put into place to address the unique needs of securing kids in cars—lap belts weren’t cutting it. This was seen more as a convenience rather than protection—keeping fidgety kids in place and where parents could see them. The evolution of child passenger safety went through everything from fully-reclined seats to backseat playpens.
Then in 1962, two different people came up with ways to revolutionize child safety seats— Jean Ames created the first back-facing/y-shaped car seat over in Great Britain while Leonard Rivkin, an American children’s furniture store owner from Denver, fashioned a forward facing solution in Colorado. The Ames design is closest to the rear-facing car seat used today, but these two started automakers and consumers down the road to requiring children to have specially made equipment to keep them safe in motor vehicles. Although there have been a few unique spins on how to keep kids protected in cars since then—Ford Motor Company introduced the Tot Guard in 1973, a sort of plastic encasement with a pillow on the top to protect the child’s face should they jerk forward in an accident—child passenger safety has advanced significantly.
Child safety today
Today, there is a plethora of OEM and aftermarket child safety features available on the market that go far beyond the basic seat belt or child restraint. In general, these include the following solutions.
Child Safety Locks
For the most part, child safety locks on backseat car doors can be turned on manually by pushing a lever or button on the side of the left and right side doors. Once initiated, it is impossible for backseat passengers to open the door from the inside.
Located on the driver’s side armrest are the buttons for the automatic windows and door locks. There is also a control called the driver-operated window disabler, which allows the driver to lock all passenger windows.
Anti-Pinch Automatic Windows
Newer windows have an express roll-up feature—with one push of a button, the windows rise to close without having to hold the controls down. When obstacles are in the way, however, the window continues going up and kids have come away with hurt hands, bruised heads and more due to getting whatever caught in the opening. The anti-pinch feature detects even the slightest pressure and immediately halts the upward movement of the window and takes it down, automatically.
Infant/Child Safety Seats
Arguably the most familiar of child safety features, the car seat has grown from optional to mandatory over the years. As mentioned, there are regulations on the kind of seat to be used for which stage of development, where they must be placed in the car and are available both as aftermarket solutions and, in the case of Volvo in particular, OEM. They are credited as the single most effective protection for children in case of an accident when installed and used correctly.
The LATCH Program
LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, which was federally mandated in the U.S. in 1999. The legislation requires cars to install hardware that makes it easier to “latch” a child protective seat properly and securely. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rates LATCH equipped vehicles based on the ease with which parents can install car seats with the features provided. In some cases, it’s easier to put a child safety seat into cars that don’t have LATCH systems due to a variety of factors, so a low rating doesn’t mean there will be an issue with the seat itself.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandated the installation and use of airbags back in 1994. Located on the driver and front passenger side of a vehicle, they are activated during a collision via a variety of sensors. Unfortunately, because of where children’s heads are situated when sitting in the front seat, passenger side airbags can cause injuries and, even, fatalities. This led to the rear seat requirement for kids under a certain height and weight.
Smart airbags have additional sensors that can determine where a passenger is sitting in relation to where the airbag will deploy. These sensors are known as seat occupancy detectors or occupancy classification sensors (OCS). The capability ranges from releasing the airbag with less pressure than it normally would to accommodate certain passengers to not activating at all for the same reason.
Transmission Shift Interlocks
Children reaching over and shifting a car from park into a gear when the motor is running has become common. The transmission shift interlock stops that from accidentally happening by communicating with the brake. If the brake is engaged, it is possible to move from Park to a gear. However, if the brake is not pressed, shifting is halted.
The new normal of child safety
OEM solutions for cars are now the norm and constantly innovating to keep up with the changes in an already advancing market as well as there being a variety of aftermarket products available at retail for installation. Some automakers have models that come already equipped with car seats for child passengers, taking the guesswork out of installing them—most accidents involving young occupants occur because either the child wasn’t strapped in or the car seat wasn’t secured correctly. Volvo, in particular, has established a robust child safety program that has become more extensive and innovative through the decades. It stands to reason considering it was a Volvo engineer who created then perfected the 3-point shoulder belt.
Wellcome Library, London. Colour Lithograph by Peter Huveneers, via Wikimedia Commons
Innovative solutions to new child safety concerns
Once upon a time, getting fingers caught in a car window or door, running out into the street without looking or not being secured in the car seat were the most common concerns with kids and motor vehicles. Now, things such as being backed over because the driver can’t see a child and being forgotten or left unattended in a vehicle are becoming familiar fatalities.
To battle blind-spot issues, proximity sensors are installed in pretty much all connected cars and can “see” an obstacle in front or behind, signaling the driver when an obstruction needs to be avoided.
Forgetting children in cars or leaving them unattended is another matter and has become more of an issue that, sadly, owes a fair amount to the requirements of where and how to place a car seat. Recent incidents have led to tragic circumstances—due to both overt heat and cold. While the first response is that these are cases of child abuse, as more and more of these come up and show themselves to have no set socioeconomic, gender or racial bias, it’s become clear there is far more to this phenomena than simple child neglect.
Due to the concerns about airbag injuries, installing rear facing carseats in the backseat is required for the protection of children and they work. Once a child is strapped in, however, he or she is virtually invisible to the driver unless a backseat baby mirror has been installed. There is a feeling that this “out of sight, out of mind” dynamic of a rear-facing car seat coupled with stress, change in routine and a variety of factors that can lead to distraction contribute to these incidents. In response, everyone from concerned fathers to inventive kids have begun working on solutions to prevent this anomaly from continuing to happen. Child safety advocates are also pushing for—and getting—products that will stem this epidemic.
Car seat manufacturer, Evenflo, has created the Sensorsafe, a device that clips onto a child’s car seat chest buckle and comes with a dongle that plugs into the automobile’s on-board diagnostic (OBD) system. This allows the seat to wirelessly communicate with the vehicle, which then sends an alert to the driver either when the car turns off or the child unbuckles his or herself from the seat.
Other companies are presenting aftermarket wireless proximity sensors as well. The NHTSA put out a report in 2012 on the technologies available to help monitor children in cars and prevent leaving them behind. However, the organization discovered many of these are inconsistent and rely too heavily on caregivers, which does not alleviate the issue of distraction. Safety groups claim the best defense is education and recommend these quick, easy, no- to low-tech reminders:
- Place your child’s stuffed animal beside you in the front seat as a reminder that they are in the backseat
- Sit a purse or cellphone on the backseat beside the child’s car seat, forcing you to have to go back there and get it
- Set up a daily reminder on your phone to check the backseat, ask if the child was dropped at daycare or whatever will help you remember to check the backseat
- Put a large, obvious sign on your dashboard that says, “Remember to check the backseat for kids”
As of 2018, 19 states have laws that directly address leaving kids unattended in cars, according to kidsandcars.org. In addition, several states have or are considering what are called “good samaritan laws” on the books to protect those individuals who break into a vehicle to save an unattended child or passenger.
This leads to the question of the legality—and, perhaps, morality—of allowing children in driverless vehicles without a licensed driver inside—what if the technology goes awry and he/she can’t get out? And what if the car comes upon a “kill or be killed” situation as it’s ferrying a kid?
What to do when faced with the general “lesser of two evils” scenario is already sending autonomous car manufacturers scrambling for answers to what is known as The Trolley Dilemma.
The Trolley Problem
The Trolley Problem by Cmglee, via Wikimedia Commons
In 1967, noted philosopher (and granddaughter of President Grover Cleveland), Philippa Foot
, presented a unique conundrum to shine the light on “ethical propositions and reactions”—basically, what drives people’s decisions. Called The Trolley Dilemma, it goes like this: you’re driving a trolley down the track and see five workers on the rails in front of you. You try to stop, but the brakes fail and you will hit them. You see a switch to another track, but see another worker on that one. Throwing the switch avoids the five, but kills the one. Not throwing it, saves the one, but kills the five. What do you do?
Most people answer they would sacrifice the one to save the five. The greater good, as it were. This is called utilitarianism—your actions are right if they benefit the majority. Okay.
But then ethicist, Judith Jarvis (JJ) Thomson, took it further: you’re standing on a bridge over the trolley track and see five workers below. A trolley is coming, but can’t brake, surely hitting and killing them. Standing beside you is a person whose girth would stop the trolley if you push them onto the track, causing their death, but saving the five. What do you do?
In this scenario, the majority of people say they would have to let the 5 die. But what’s the difference between this and the other? It’s believed that having a hand in the actual demise of the one person as opposed to simply shifting the track and feeling that worker may actually be able to get themselves out of the way poses a moral difficulty. As you can see, adding more complexity or shifting the factors gets you wondering if saving someone is really so black and white. From Philippa Foot’s “5 on one track, 1 on another, switch” came JJ Thomson’s “1 heavyset on a bridge can save the 5 on the track,” which, in turn, led to “1 heavyset on a bridget put the 5 on the track to be killed” and creating “the fat villain” perception. After that was Michael Costa positing “5 on a track, 1 on the other, car switched only to loop around and kill the 5”and, finally, Karl Unger’s even more layered, “5 on a track, 1 at his house sleeping in the yard, 2 trolleys collide to save the 5 only to have 1 derail and kill the 1 man in his yard.” The more probabilities you conceive, the more difficult it becomes to decide what is “right.” Hence, The Trolley Problem.
This is what self-driving car manufacturers are up against. If an autonomous vehicle is driving down a road that has a cliff on one side and a sheer rock face on the other and a child runs into the street after a ball, should the car go straight and save the passenger, but kill the child, or swerve left or right, saving the child and killing the passenger? If left to their own devices, most people say, “Save the child.” However, car manufacturers disagree.
The Trolley Problem highlights the biggest question surrounding the long-term safety of autonomous vehicles in general: the reaction of the automobile to the outside world, and the need to choose between the life of the passenger(s) and either the pedestrian(s) or those in other cars. Unlike the people posed with the conundrum, however, machines don’t have the ability to make a moral decision. They can only react as they are programmed to do. With that in mind, Mercedes-Benz announced that its self-driving cars will protect the occupants in those rare situations. The rationale is that there are already checks and balances in these vehicles to prepare for potential collisions without loss of life. Unfortunately, things are bound to happen, so it’s vital for a decision to be made and fatalities will occur, although with less frequency than they are now. Daimler is willing to assume the risk—as are Audi and Volvo—in an autonomous car accident. But what if the child is not the one on the road, but the one in the car? What kind of checks and balances of child safety are being taken for them?
Preparing for child safety in autonomous vehicles
Currently, there appears to be very little focus on children in the autonomous space, although questions of whether kids should be allowed to be transported in a driverless vehicle by themselves have come up. After all, if he/she is not equipped to grab the wheel and jump in to deal with a difficult road situation beyond the car’s control, what does that mean for their safety and the safety of others?
Whether or not minors should be allowed to travel alone in self-driving cars has 58% of those polled against, 32% for, and 10% undecided. But, consider this: it is an international law that children under certain ages must be secured in a car seat of some sort under the age of 12 or within a certain height and weight range. It also states they can’t sit in front near passenger side airbags and that, in most regions, they can’t be left unattended in a car. If an average sized 8 year-old is traveling alone to a soccer practice in an autonomous car, based on today’s laws that 8 year-old needs to be strapped into a booster seat, in the back of the car, and never left alone due to concerns over hyper and hypo-thermia issues. It begs the question: will those regulations change once the cars, themselves, are running unattended?
Keeping kids safe in driverless cars
Autonomous vehicles are not just coming, they’re virtually here. The more they become the norm, the more this question will need to be addressed. And, as of today, there is no easy answer or solid solution.