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Automatic Shifts Questioned : Transmission: Some warn that extra caution is needed when all a child needs to do to get a car moving is push the lever down.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It happens once or twice a year, it seems. A youngster shifts the idling, unattended family car into gear and drives away.

Very often, it’s a vehicle with an automatic transmission.

And in the wake of an accident Saturday that injured five North Hollywood children, some are warning that extra caution is warranted around cars with automatic transmissions.

“All you have to do is push the gearshift down, which (the child) sees mom and dad do all the time,” California Highway Patrol dispatcher and former patrolman Judd Strong said of automatics. “You don’t have to push the clutch.”

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A Van Nuys auto mechanic, who said his own young son recently took a short and scary drive, said automatics are also more susceptible than cars with manual transmissions to being accidentally knocked into gear.

Saturday’s accident occurred when Estela Lopez went to her driveway in the 6800 block of Agness Avenue and started her 1984 Ford Thunderbird--an automatic with the shift lever on the steering column--before running back into the house to hurry her three children along. They were headed to breakfast.

Lopez’s 2-year-old son, Ozvaldo, apparently made his way into the idling car and moved the gearshift into drive, police said, running over a group of five children playing in the driveway.

While some experts said automatics seemed more susceptible to such freak accidents, others warned that any mix of children and unattended, idling cars can be fatal, and said automatics are by no means the only culprits.

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“I know of no pattern (of such accidents) with automatic transmissions,” said Chuck Hurley of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Washington, D.C. “If there were a significant pattern, we’d know about it.”

In tragic cases like this most recent one, he said, “it doesn’t appear to me the problem is the transmission.”

Motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of death among young children in the United States, according to Hurley, with about 650 children under the age of 4 being killed every year.

While most of those deaths occur when the child is an occupant of the car or a pedestrian, he said, fatalities right around the home are not uncommon.

“The driveway risk is a very significant risk, and the reason is that’s where kids are.”

Officer Gary Louis of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Valley Traffic Division said both types of cars can be safe or unsafe.

“I think it’s more important that you don’t leave kids in any running car,” he said.


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