At least seven children have died nationwide in the past three months by getting strangled in automobile power windows, prompting safety advocates to charge the auto industry and the government with dragging their feet in making relatively simple changes to reduce the danger.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency responsible for monitoring auto safety, has no rules governing power window safety and no formal way of tracking such accidents despite examining the issue for several years. A spokesman said the agency plans to propose a rule requiring safer power windows in about a month, followed by a comment period and then a phase-in period for industry to comply.
Until the recent unexplained surge in deaths, power windows were thought to be responsible for only about two to four child deaths per year, a small fraction of the 43,220 people killed annually in U.S. traffic accidents.
But safety advocates say any such deaths are unnecessary because they are readily preventable. The problem is primarily with U.S.-made cars sold in the U.S. market, which traditionally have used "rocker" or toggle-style switches that can cause power windows to close inadvertently if someone leans on the switch.
Because some foreign governments have window safety requirements, most Asian- and European-brand vehicles use a type of switch that has to be pulled upward to raise the window, making it difficult for a child to trip it accidentally. Many foreign brands also offer bounce-back features that cause windows to lower automatically if they hit an obstacle, similar to the safety feature on garage-door openers. Such equipment is available on Volkswagens, for example, sold in the United States or abroad.
Most U.S.-brand cars sold in Europe also offer such features, but are just beginning to offer the equipment in the domestic market. Ford Motor Co., for example, offers the safer-style switches on all Jaguars and Volvos, most Mazdas, Lincoln Navigators and Aviators, and Ford Mustangs and Thunderbirds, a spokeswoman said.
"Once this was identified as a safety issue, automakers immediately began to phase out the rocker switches," said Eron Shosteck, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "But bear in mind with any safety technology there's always a phase-in. You're always going to see it take time to penetrate the entire fleet."
Shosteck also pointed out that power windows, once primarily an option on expensive luxury cars, are now almost universal. Nearly 91 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States this year were equipped with power windows, according to Ward's Automotive. In 1988, fewer than 50 percent of new cars sold in the United States had power windows.
That trend and the onset of warm weather may be partly to blame for the recent spate of accidents, though experts say it may be just bad luck. "It appears to be happening more often. I can't explain to you why, I don't understand that," said Sally Greenberg of Consumers Union, publishers of Consumer Reports, which has called for government intervention.
The Senate has passed a highway authorization bill that requires automakers to make power windows safer and creates a government database to keep track of such deaths. The proposal is in conference with a House highway bill that does not contain such language, and supporters say time is wasting.
"We've got a real epidemic," said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who sponsored the language in the bill. Carmakers are beginning to address the problem, he said, "but, you know, let's just get it done. . . . It doesn't cost much and we ought to just do it."
NHTSA's proposed rule would require carmakers to use the safer type of switches, spokesman Rae Tyson said. The agency looked at the extent of the problem in a study released in May, but that was a survey of death certificates that covered only the year 1998. It found four incidents that year.
The primary group tracking such cases is the Kansas-based Kids and Cars, whose founder Janette Fennell uses a press clipping service and legal and emergency services sources to compile a running list of power window fatalities. Fennell has already made one mark in auto safety, leading a campaign five years ago to put release handles inside car trunks after she and her husband were trapped in their trunk by thieves. That crusade, which led to federal regulations on trunk latches, prompted an outpouring from people with other car-safety concerns, including the dangers posed to children by power windows.
Fennell registered two deaths related to power windows last year and four in 2002. This year's apparent increase may just mean she is getting better at finding them, Fennell said.
The incidents include two so far this month. On June 6 in Dallas, a woman had stopped her 2001 Ford pickup and was talking to her husband through the driver's side window, according to press reports. Unbeknownst to her, her 3-year-old daughter leaned out of the passenger's side window and her knee or foot hit the rocker switch, causing the window to close on her neck. The mother noticed after a few moments, but the girl died from strangulation.
On June 3 in Walworth County, Wis., a 4-year-old boy caught his neck in a power window when his mother left her 1991 Lincoln Continental running in the driveway as she went briefly into the house of a friend, county police spokesman Capt. Scott McClory said. The boy leaned on the switch, McClory said, and was dead when his mother returned to the car.
Wisconsin had another case in April, in Dane County, in which a mother left four children, ages 2 through 6, in a 1996 Mercury Sable as she went into a golf resort to apply for a job, sheriff's Capt. Tanya Molony said. The car was off but the key was in the accessory position so the radio could play. A 2-year-old worked the window controls and caused a 6-year-old boy to get his neck caught in a rear window, Molony said. The children eventually lowered the window, but when the mother returned in less than 15 minutes the boy was not breathing and was later pronounced dead.
Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley said the company intends to replace all switches with the lift-up type, but that the change will take time. She said the company also is studying putting bounce-back windows on more models. But ultimately, she said, "there's only so much automakers can do to prevent these tragedies. At some point the parents have a responsibility to make sure children are supervised."
But even if parents are present, they cannot always prevent such accidents from happening.
Last June, Becky Hergatt pulled into her driveway in Mansfield, Ohio, and rolled up the windows on her 1992 Buick because rain seemed imminent. She and her teenage daughter got out of the front seat and walked toward the house, when her daughter looked back at the car and screamed. Hergatt's 5-year-old son, Mac, was hanging from the car's rear window, his neck caught between the glass and the door frame.
"He was blue, and limp," Hergatt said. Her daughter lowered the window and Hergatt, a registered nurse, performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. In three breaths, the boy was revived.
They were lucky, said Hergatt, whose family runs a machine shop. But she came away angry that such a thing could happen. "We own a business, and I can't imagine making a product that had something really, flagrantly dangerous about it . . . and having a fix for it and not using it," she said. "I don't know how those people sleep."