The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to propose next week that car manufacturers be required to install interior trunk releases in their new vehicles by Jan. 1, 2001, to prevent children and adults from becoming entrapped.
The proposal, if it becomes final, would be the first formal step taken by the federal government to give people trapped in trunks a sure way out of them. The issue rose to the top of the agency's regulatory agenda in the summer of 1998 when 11 children died of heat stroke when they were accidentally locked into trunks in three separate incidents. All were under 6 years of age.
The auto industry has supported the idea of such a safety standard, and manufacturers already offer trunk releases on some models.
It's expected that the proposal will give carmakers broad latitude on what kind of device they install to meet the rule. The proposal is likely to state that the mechanism must be easily manipulated, visible in a dark trunk and match the cognitive abilities of young children.
Safety experts believe that the increase in remote-control openers makes it easier and more attractive for children to get into trunks. They also crawl into trunks through openings in the back seats of some cars. Adults have been locked in trunks after robberies or carjackings.
According to figures kept by an advocacy group that has been pushing for the rule, about 1,250 children and adults have been locked into trunks--either voluntarily or involuntarily--since 1970. It's estimated that about 25 percent of them died, including almost 40 children younger than 14. Most such fatalities are from heat stroke or asphyxiation.
The 1988 summer tragedy spurred General Motors Corp. to begin work on retrofit kits for some vehicles. It also started to research what kinds of in-trunk release devices children would actually use.
In less than year, GM came up with a $50 retrofit kit for most models dating back to 1990 and has installed about 3,000 of them so far, a spokesman said. It also began a public safety campaign called "Trunks Are for Elephants."
For its new cars, GM is working on a passive system that uses an infrared detector to sense movement and a temperature differential to automatically open the trunk. The system would work only when a car is in "park." There also would be a manual trunk release. Both will be offered on the 2000 Chevrolet Impala and by 2002 will be on all GM cars.
Ford is the only manufacturer to offer as standard equipment in model year 2000 vehicles an emergency trunk release system that uses a cable-operated release to "pop" the trunk from the inside.
The cable is attached to a T-shaped handle made of material that glows in the dark. Based on research done on how young children approach and handle objects, Ford said the handle has been made so it can be pulled from a variety of directions to work.
Ford does not have a retrofit kit available for older model years, though it is hoping to make something available soon that would work for cars made since 1995, a spokesman said.
DaimlerChrysler began offering a retrofit kit last June for models back to 1993. The carmaker said all of its new cars will have a lighted handle in them by Jan. 1, 2001, but installation may come earlier on most models.
The NHTSA proposal is in response to recommendations by a special panel this summer that automakers install the devices by 2001. The panel also recommended that there be a national data-collection system, more education about trunk entrapment including warning labels, retrofit kits and development of a standard for trunk safety features.
Heather Paul, executive director of the National Safe Kids Campaign, who was chairwoman of the panel, favors a passive device that ensures all children will be able to escape. "We hope we get something that is 100 percent guaranteed," she said.
"One of the problems with a handle is you can't fully simulate the circumstances. What is the window of opportunity for a child to find a handle in the raging Utah heat?" said Paul.
GM said it looked at that question when it did behavioral research with children and found that many children become "quite passive" if trapped in trunks. GM also determined that the lighting on a release should be indirect so as not to appear hot to the touch to children.
The prospect of a rule is a relief to Janette Fennell, whom robbers locked in the trunk of her car with her husband, Greig, in 1995. After the incident, she founded TRUNC, or Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition, and crusaded to convince the car companies and the federal government that there was a problem.
"I am elated that, hopefully, this will become standard equipment," said Fennell. She hopes all the devices will be child-friendly and usable by children as young as 3. She also thinks a database is important because now there is no way of judging the true scope of the problem, or of tracking how well the release mechanisms work. Retrofit kits also should be made mandatory, she added.
Fennell regrets it took so long to get to this point, especially since she believes the fix is a fairly simple one. NHTSA was petitioned in 1984 to consider a standard. It refused, stating that "the agency has concluded that the likelihood of an internal trunk-release lever ever being utilized is remote."
At the time, there also were concerns among the auto companies that inside openers would encourage criminals to do worse things to victims than lock them in the trunk. Besides, there was nothing at the time to suggest that criminals regularly locked people in trunks, one auto industry official noted.
Experts on the safety panel who studied the issue concluded that it was impossible to predict what the criminal mind might do. The panel decided to focus instead on children to spoil, as Fennell characterized it, "the ultimate game of hide-and-seek gone bad."