by Grant Yoxon

(Editor’s Note – December 1999. After 11 children died in car trunks during the summer of 1998, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could no longer ignore the issue of trunk entrapment. Thanks to the efforts of people like Janette and Greig Fennell, who lead the fight to make the public and legislators aware of the dangers, the US now plans to require safety features on all new cars by 2001 to prevent children and adults from becoming trapped in vehicle trunks.)

In August 1998, two Greene Township, Pennsylvania boys, Christopher Carl Wright, 5, and his brother, Drew Everett Wright, 2, apparently locked themselves in the trunk of their parent’s car. Their bodies were discovered several hours later, by their father, along with the bodies of their two puppies and the car keys.


A few days later in West Valley City, Utah, a frantic mother drove around in a car searching for her two daughters and three other children unaware that they were locked in the trunk. The five girls, aged two to six, were found when police officers and one of the mothers opened the trunk on the 1993 Saturn. Temperatures approached 33 degrees C. The children died of heat stroke.


In total 11 children have died in the United States this summer after crawling into car trunks and becoming trapped inside.


The deaths have renewed demands in the U.S. for regulations requiring auto makers to install release switches inside trunks.


Among those demanding changes are San Francisco residents, Janette and Greig Fennell, who in 1995 were robbed at gunpoint and forced into the trunk of their car. The Fennells escaped after they dug into the trunk’s upholstery and managed to find the cable that released the trunk lock. If they had not escaped they could have died.


A few months later the Fennells began their effort to convince car makers to install illuminated release buttons inside car trunks. They formed TRUNC – Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition – and lobbied car makers, politicians and anyone who would listen.


They also launched a World Wide Web site to publicize the issue and to offer advice to others on how to avoid being trapped and how to make a simple, but effective trunk release switch.

One of those who took up their case was U.S. Representative Bart Stupak, a former police officer, who tried to get federal legislation to require manufacturers to install the device. The effort failed, largely because of resistance from the big three auto makers.


A second attempt, to require the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to at least conduct a study of the issue, was successful.


“The auto lobbyists fought hard against this in Congress,” said Mrs. Fennell, “but Rep. Stupak was able to push it through. He had to make it the law before the study would even be
conducted.”


There is no guarantee the study will result in a requirement to install the release switches, but the recent publicity surrounding the tragedies in the U.S. has certainly heightened awareness of the need.


Mrs. Fennell said, “everyone is finally paying attention to this issue due to the needless and tragic deaths of 11 innocent children. I have shown through my research that over 150 people have lost their lives due to trunk entrapment incidents.”


Mrs. Fennell has collected more than 650 cases of trunk entrapment involving both children accidentally entrapped and victims of crime. They began to compile this information after learning that no one in their government collected such statistics.


Apparently, statistics of such incidents are not collected in Canada either, at least by Transport Canada, the federal department responsible for vehicle safety in Canada. Robert Greenslade, spokesperson for the department, suggested checking with “police authorities, because it’s not something (people) would necessarily report to us. They wouldn’t report a criminal act like that or an activity like that to Transport.”


An incident wouldn’t be reported unless it was believed to be related to a defect in the vehicle, “and I’m not sure many people would think of this as a defect in a vehicle,” said Mr. Greenslade.


Transport Canada has no plans to study the issue. “I suspect what we’ll be doing,” said Mr. Greenslade “is just monitoring what the NHTSA is doing on this.”


In the past, the auto industry has balked at installing trunk releases in cars, citing arguments, many of which, Mr. Greenslade said, “I think are quite reasonable.” Criminals might be more likely to act violently if they thought their victims might escape from the trunk. And the releases could send the wrong message to children, implying that it was safe to play in the trunk.


Mrs. Fennell said these concerns are ridiculous. “Arguing that a criminal, in the midst of an irrational act, will spare the life of his victim only if the victim can be locked in the trunk, is unjustified drivel.”


As for encouraging unsafe play: “If releases would suggest that it’s OK to play in the trunk, then do bicycle helmets suggest it’s OK to pedal into trees?”


There is no doubt parents have a role to play in educating their children to the danger of car trunks. The Fennell’s web site has lots of advice to offer parents.


Never leave children alone or unsupervised for even a few minutes. Never leave your car keys where children can access them. Always make sure your car is locked so that children cannot access a car unsupervised. Do not underestimate your children’s capabilities. If there is a way in, they will figure it out. Teach your children about the dangers of a car, especially the car trunk.


And there is advice for adults too, including many common sense tips that will help prevent a robbery, assault or car jacking.


It is also good advice to keep a crowbar, pliers, wrench and screwdriver in the trunk of your car to pry open the latch or bang for help. Better, if your car has a factory equipped electronic trunk release mechanism and an interior trunk light, you can install a simple trunk release for less than $4.00.


The web site provides instructions for this installation, but a kit and video are also available for purchase.


Since they began their quest to make interior trunk releases mandatory, the Fennells have collected some startling cases of tragic incidents, a few of which are summarized on the web site. Visitors who are moved by these cases are encouraged to write letters to their political representatives and circulate petitions.


Mrs. Fennell notes that automakers in the 1970s made storage wells in station wagons escapable after the death of one child and 11 “close calls.” And she says trunk releases are installed in the Cadillac Catera and Chrysler’s Strata, Breeze and Cirrus models, although the automaker initially denied their existence.


Mrs. Fennell said she won’t quit until something is done. “I do not care if it takes me another six weeks, six months or six years; I will not give up until something is done about this important safety issue.”

Grant Yoxon is an automotive writer and editor of Autos. This article first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, August 28, 1998.

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