Auto Taser, the latest consumer gizmo in the war on auto thefts, resembles the brainchild of some Hollywood special-effects wizard.
Even the ads by the manufacturer, Taser International Inc., which also gave us the personal stun gun, look like clips from old Frankenstein movies. We're talking pictures of lightning bolts shooting out of a car thief's ears!
The security system, designed to give an intruder a pulsating 50,000-volt electron shock, is being touted by the manufacturer as a "portable lightning storm" and the "first and only automotive defense system that fights back."
Auto Taser is a wireless, battery-operated device that clamps onto your steering wheel (not unlike the conventional, well-established Club system, a product of Winner International). If someone enters a car that is equipped with Auto Taser, the remote-activated gadget senses motion and emits a five-second alarm that can reach 130 decibels.
After sounding the warning siren, the device activates an electrical field that completely surrounds the unit. Try to touch Auto Taser, and you're zapped; if your hand is within half an inch of the device, you'll get shocked. Sparks literally jump off the device. It's an impressive display of power, say those who have tried it at auto shows.
Anyone who has ever had a car stolen may welcome such a graphic form of retribution. But it's certainly not a jolt you'd want your children or pets to encounter--nor any other innocent, unsuspecting individual.
Despite the company's assurances, skeptics question the risk of injury to children and people of fragile health.
Although Auto Taser operates at a very low current of 0.0002 amperes, Dr. Michael Gerardi, chairman of pediatric emergency medicine for the American College of Emergency Physicians, warns that there is the potential for a serious health risk if a child were shocked by the device.
"A few hundred people may have tried it and walked away, but all it takes is one kid with sweaty palms to grab it with both hands and it could shock the heart," says Gerardi, who is also director of emergency pediatric medicine at Morristown Memorial Hospital in New Jersey.
"I would recommend no parents put this in their car, or at least wait until it's been on the market for five years," he says. "If they do install it, they would have to be vigilant" in keeping young children away from the device. Even with older kids who may want to try it out for fun, Gerardi advises: "Don't leave your car keys around."
Tina Miller-Steinke, a spokeswoman for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taser International, says that the device is nonlethal and is legal in all 50 states. Auto Taser is legal because it is designed as a deterrent system, not a booby-trap that could injure a person without warning, the company says.
None of the volunteers who have tested it have been injured, Miller-Steinke says.
"Our medical studies show . . . it's not going to harm anyone, whether it is a child or a 200-pound man," she says.
Getting shocked by Auto Taser is comparable to the "feeling of walking across carpet on a dry day and touching a doorknob" and is less dangerous than a jolt from a main electrical outlet, Miller-Steinke says. The difference is that Auto Taser's pulse continues about 15 times a second. So the duration would be longer than that of a quick shock from a doorknob.
The Auto Taser kit comes with warning stickers to be placed on the car and a prominent warning on the device itself. Because of questions raised over the potential risk to children, new instructions for the device will include cautions against leaving children or pets unattended in the car when the device is activated, Miller-Steinke says.
Neither the Consumer Product Safety Commission nor the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has jurisdiction over the device, nor has either agency reported receiving any complaints, representatives say. In California, the attorney general's office has no pending cases against the makers of Auto Taser, says spokesman Bill Maile.
Los Angeles attorney Stephen Yagman, who is suing a Municipal Court judge and Los Angeles County over a June incident in which a prisoner was zapped with an electric stun belt, criticizes the use of Taser crime-fighting devices.
"Just because you don't like criminals, you can't whip them or shock them," Yagman says. "This is by far the most egregious example . . . of a product that allows people to take the law into their own hands.
"I understand why people would manufacture this. But there's a potential risk of being injured or killed," Yagman says. "What if someone who has a heart condition or a 5-year-old child gets into the car, grabs it and gets 50,000 volts?"
The device, which sells for about $199, is so new to the market that representatives of the California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles Police Department had never heard of it.
The FBI has bought 12 Auto Tasers, Miller-Steinke says, noting: "We don't know what they'll use them for--everything is so top-secret there."
Although police agencies don't endorse specific products, retired LAPD Det. Gary Sims recently said he would welcome "any legal method you use to make it harder for someone to steal a car."
People have done everything from "wrapping a live snake around their steering wheel to leaving big dogs in their cars" to thwart thieves, says Sims, who investigated auto thefts in the city.
Ultimately, he warns, "if someone really wants your car, there is nothing on the market that can stop them."
"We've had suspects dismantle tracking devices on cars as they are driving down the freeway," he says. "I've watched suspects steal a Mercedes that had an alarm system in less than a minute."
Even Miller-Steinke of Taser International acknowledges: "If a thief really wants your car, they can hitch it to a tow truck and take off with it."
Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W., No. 1100, Washington, DC 20006. Via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.