General Motors has developed a new sensor and alarm system intended to prevent the deaths of children or pets left in vehicles in hot weather.

The system will be fitted in minivans and pickup trucks beginning with the 2004 model year.

The company’s research shows that at least 120 children have died of heatstroke in parked cars since 1996.

The newly-developed sensor can detect motion as subtle as the breathing of an infant sleeping in a rear-facing child safety seat.

Once it detects that a child or pet is present and that the temperature is likely to reach dangerous levels, the sensor sounds three distinct “chirp” toots on the vehicle’s horn. The system could also be linked to emergency services through GM’s OnStar vehicle telematics system.

The alarm threshold is still being developed based on data collected last autumn during a GM Canada-funded study by pediatric hyperthermia researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

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According to Dr. Oded Bar-Or, a pediatrician and director of the Children’s Exercise and Nutrition Centre at the university, extreme heat affects infants and small children more quickly and dramatically than adults.

Because of their smaller size, their core can increase three to five times faster than an adult. Heatstroke, or hyperthermia, occurs when the body’s core temperature reaches 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dr. Bar-Or’s research revealed that the air temperature in a previously air-conditioned small car exposed to the sun on a 95-degree day exceeds 122 degrees within 20 minutes and 150 degrees within 40 minutes.

Dr. Bar-Or emphasised that leaving a window slightly open on a sunny day may do little to prevent the heat inside a vehicle from rising to a level that is dangerous for children, vulnerable adults and pets.

GM is to sponsor a national campaign in the USA this summer that will warn parents about the danger of leaving children alone in parked cars.

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