If you're a parent with small kids, chances are you use a car seat and probably think you know all there is to know about keeping the little ones safely strapped in. But have you heard of Little Houdini? No? Then keep reading.
According to a study conducted by the Yale School of Medicine a few years ago, 51 percent of American parents reported that their toddlers had figured out how to unbuckle themselves from car seats—no matter how elaborate the harnesses used to keep them there. Of these pint-sized escape artists, 75 percent of them were under age 3 when they broke free—and 43 percent did it while the car was in motion.
When these results appeared in 2011, it sent tremors of fear through the mommy blogger community. It also brought attention to products such as Houdini Stop, which markets a harness that the company claims is impervious to any and all escape routines. But in St. Louis, an inventor and entrepreneur named Bob Steffen had been thinking about a digital solution for the problem of self-unbuckling kids.
Now, he's selling what he hopes is a solution.
Steffen calls his gadget Driver's Little Helper, an electronic monitoring system that works via an app for iPhone or Android. The product is basically a weight-sensitive sensor pad—placed on the car seat with the child sitting on top—and a base unit that communicates with your smart phone. "So say you put junior in the car and you're driving down the street," Steffen explains. "If the child gets out, it sends an alert to your phone and your phone alerts you."
With the help of an engineer friend who worked at Ford, Steffen also equipped his product to prevent another surprisingly common and entirely preventable tragedy: Forgotten children left inside of cars, who subsequently die of hypothermia. Steffen's invention will send an alert both if the car's ambient temperature climbs too high, or if the child is in his seat for more than five minutes in a vehicle that's not moving. "Moms get out of the car to talk for 10 minutes, but things get away from us rather quickly," he says. "A car becomes fatal on a sunny day in approximately 15 minutes."
Fatalities from such incidents are alarming: average of 36 children die every year from being left in overheated cars—724 deaths in total between 1991 and 2013. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, hot vehicles are the No. 1 non-crash, vehicle-related killer of children under 14 in America, and some 54 percent of kids stuck in hot cars were left there because their parents simply forgot about them.
Steffen's interest in child car safety stemmed in part from his project work in sales for General Motors, but mainly it came from his own childhood. His parents owned an automotive salvage company, and he remembers the steady stream of horrifying wrecks towed into the yard. "I was always looking at mashed-up cars," Steffen recalls. "My whole life was centered around accidents."
Now his life is centered on launching his brand. For now, his product is available online for $79.99, but Steffen is working on mainstream distribution channels. Helping in that effort is digital ad shop Moosylvania, which also assisted with research and packaging. Moosylvania president Nick Foppe pointed out that automakers have already standardized all sorts of front-seat safety gizmos for adults, yet somehow the welfare of kids in the back hasn't gotten nearly as much attention.
And how do child-safety advocates feel about Driver's Little Helper? "I have mixed feelings on such a device," said Mike Hope, who maintains The Car Crash Detective, a blog devoted to auto safety news and views.
"On one hand," he said, the app is "definitely intended to help reduce the occurrences of an all-too-frequent tragedy, in terms of children being forgotten in car seats…. I support any devices that help parents." But at the same time, Hope said he worries parents might rely too much on technology. "The greater issues aren't ones that can be solved with apps," he said. "The most effective changes must come from parents themselves."
Steffen is familiar with that point of view, and doesn't disagree. Still, he points out that, in an age where constant distractions have become the norm, there's nothing wrong with leaning on an app for a little help. "Nobody purposely forgets [their kids]," he said. "It's just the reality of life."
Just like kids who figure out ways to unbuckle those safety harnesses.