Raelyn Balfour woke up March 30, 2007, exhausted. Her 9-month-old son, Bryce, was up all night with a cold. But she and her husband, Jarrett, knew that if they could just get through the day, they could rest all weekend.
Their morning routine was already off to a rocky start. Jarrett’s sister was borrowing his car, which meant Raelyn had to drop him off at work and then take Bryce to his babysitter. An emergency call from Raelyn’s work just added to her already hectic morning. But once at work, with the crisis averted, Raelyn went about her day.
Eight hours later, a call from her babysitter would change her life forever.
“That morning flashed through my mind as I was walking out to my car,” said Raelyn. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t think I dropped him off.’”
She didn’t. For eight hours, Bryce was strapped in his car seat as the temperature inside the car reached 120 degrees, even though the outside temperature was a mild 66 degrees.
Raelyn frantically administered CPR on her little boy as coworkers called 911. But by then it was already too late. Bryce had died from hypothermia. Overcome with grief, Raelyn and Jarrett held their baby one last time in the hospital before doctors took him away.
Since 1990 more than 1,000 children have died from heatstroke in hot cars, according to Kidsandcars.org. Every nine days a child dies after being accidentally left in a car. Hot car tragedies have already taken the lives of five children in 2021.
"I made a promise to him that his death wouldn't be for nothing,” said Raelyn.
Fifteen years later, the pain and the mission continue as Raelyn and her husband push for safety legislation, including the Hot Cars Act of 2021 recently introduced in the House.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., also co-sponsored the bipartisan Surface Transportation Investment Act, which aims to prevent hot car tragedies.
"This law will require that cars have warning systems, that they alert the driver, much like you would if you leave the key in the ignition lock and the bell will start ringing," Blumenthal said.
The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an advocacy group for the auto industry, says that participating manufacturers have committed to install a rear seat reminder system in all passenger cars and light trucks no later than 2025. But auto safety legislation would make this technology a mandatory standard in all cars.
"There really should be no need for legislation. There should be no need for a new law, but we can’t wait,” said Blumenthal.
Some car manufacturers have already voluntarily installed this technology. Some vehicles have dashboards that display a warning to check the rear seat. Others have ultrasonic rear occupant alerts that detect whether a child or pet was left in a car after the driver exits the vehicle. There are manufacturers that install both.
But there was nothing in Raelyn’s car to alert her that Bryce was still buckled in his car seat. It was only after the call from his babysitter that she realized what she had done.
"That's the reality, is that we get distracted,” said Raelyn. “We are tired or there's a change in our routine and we can't educate everybody.”
That’s why Raelyn says it’s so important to get this safety legislation passed.
Raelyn did face second-degree murder and felony child abuse charges but was eventually acquitted.
“By being vocal and speaking out every possible opportunity that I’m afforded, it makes me closer to him that I’m keeping my promise,” said Raelyn.
While the overwhelming majority of hot car tragedies occur when children are forgotten in vehicles, 26 percent of those children who die gained access into a vehicle on their own. The technology included in the hot cars act would alert parents and caregivers to both incidents.
Keeping Your Kids Safe
The nonprofit child safety organization Kids and Cars offers some tips to help keep kids safe.
- Create a reminder to check the back seat. Put something in the back seat that you will need, like your cell phone, handbag, employee ID or briefcase so that you have to open the back door to retrieve that item every time you park.
- Keep a large stuffed animal in the child’s car seat. When the child is placed in the car seat, put the stuffed animal in the front passenger seat. It’s a visual reminder that the child is in the back seat.
- Keep car keys and remote openers out of reach of children.
- Use technology. Apps like WAZE have child reminders that are activated when you arrive at your destination.
- If you see a child alone in a vehicle, get involved. Call 911 immediately. If the child seems hot or sick, get them out of the vehicle as quickly as possible.
Reported by Susan Hogan, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Lance Ing.