Mandatory Car Trunk-Release Rules Proposed

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The horror of finding your child trapped in a car trunk, or yourself left to die in a dark trunk during a carjacking or assault, is unimaginable.

During the last 20 years, at least 1,250 people in the U.S. have been trapped in car trunks and scores have died, according to figures compiled by an advocacy group called TRUNC, the Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition.

Yet the automobile industry and safety regulators had long rebuffed calls for internal trunk-release handles. That opposition finally dissolved after a string of tragic accidents, including the deaths in 1998 of 11 youngsters who became trapped in trunks while playing.

Now the federal government is poised to approve new regulations and has put a proposed set of rules up for public comment.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed that all new cars be required to have release handles in trunks by 2001. Feb. 15 is the deadline for members of the public to register their support for such devices.

Even the auto industry, which was initially against such a requirement, has eased its opposition. U.S. market leaders General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. confirmed, through spokesmen, that they will support the NHTSA proposal.

Indeed, Ford has already added a T-shaped, glow-in-the-dark handle as standard equipment in the trunks of its 2000-model cars. GM offers an optional release lever in the sidewall of the trunk and is also developing a motion- and heat-sensing system aimed at detecting young children who may not be able to use a handle to escape.

DaimlerChrysler plans to make trunk releases standard on new Chryslers and Dodges by 2001. The company's Mercedes-Benz unit and the American subsidiaries of Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. of Japan also say they will meet the proposed deadline for installing trunk-release systems.

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Nevertheless, "it's important for people to voice their opinions before the Feb. 15 deadline," said Janette Fennell, founder of TRUNC.

Fennell, herself a victim of trunk entrapment, says she is worried that at the eleventh hour, some auto makers may begin to express opposition to mandatory rules.

"We just don't know what will happen. I've been fighting for this for four years, and I've heard a lot of complaints from the auto industry," she said.

Early on, auto makers fought mandatory rules, arguing that "a criminal may become more violent if they know there's a trunk release and the victim could escape . . . or that releases would give children the message that it is OK to play in the trunk because they could easily get out," Fennell said.

She fears that to some extent, "the American public has bought this in the past."

Though many trunk entrapments are accidental, as when children are playing and lock themselves inside, or when teenagers play pranks, young people aren't the only victims.

"Car trunks are also used as 'prisons on wheels' by criminals who take their victims to more secluded areas to rob, rape or kill them," Fennell said.

Her research, based on anecdotal information, law-enforcement records and newspapers accounts, indicates that 20% to 25% of people locked inside the trunk of a car die. NHTSA does not keep statistics on truck-entrapment incidents or fatalities.

"Nobody believes it will happen to them," Fennell said.

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That's how she felt before it happened to her family in 1995 in San Francisco.

She and her husband were confronted as they pulled into their garage and were ordered at gunpoint into the trunk of their Lexus.

"The worst thing was we didn't know what was happening with our 8-month-old son, who was sleeping in his car seat. We felt so totally helpless," Fennell said.

But as the car was being driven through the city, she said, "we started ripping at everything we could--trying to find wires for tail- or brake lights." They were hoping to disconnect the lights and somehow attract the attention of police or someone who would call 911.

The gunmen took their ATM card and demanded the password. After the car was abandoned with her and her husband still in the trunk, Fennell said, they managed to locate and activate the trunk-release cable inside the car. Their son was gone, but police found him back in their garage, still strapped in his safety seat.

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To comment on the government's proposed trunk-release regulations, consumers may write to NHTSA, Docket Management, Docket No. NHTSA-99-5063, Notice 1, Room PL-401, 400 7th St. SW, Washington, DC 20590; or e-mail from a special Web site, http://dms.dot.gov/search.

TRUNC can be reached at 537 Jones St., No. 2514, San Francisco, CA 94102; on the Web, http://www.netkitchen.com/trunc.

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. E-mail: highway1@latimes.com.

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