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Power window reforms sought in wake of deaths

Special to The Times

At least seven children nationwide have died since March 30 from strangulation or asphyxiation after their necks were caught by power windows.

The rash of deaths has prompted safety advocates to increase pressure on Congress to enact measures that would require vehicles to have safer power-window switches.

“We are devastated by these fatalities,” says Janette Fennell, president of Kids and Cars, a consumer advocate group that has strenuously pushed for tougher vehicle safety. “Congress can stop children from being needlessly killed by dangerous power windows.”

Over the last two decades, at least 70 children have been killed in power-window accidents, according to data tracked by Kids and Cars. Thirty-six of those fatalities have occurred since 1990. A 1997 study by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis estimated that 500 people annually are treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries related to power windows.

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The most recent incidents occurred June 5, when Yencey Ayala, 3, of Dallas was strangled in the window of a 2001 Ford F-250 truck. Her mother was sitting in the driver’s seat next to her when the child may have accidentally activated the window with her knee or foot, according to Hunter Craft, the family’s attorney. He said the child’s mother tried to free her daughter by lowering the window, but had difficulty getting it to go down.

On May 24, Hailee Chappell, 4, of Box Elder, S.D., was killed when her head got trapped by a power window. Her mother had left her and a younger sister alone for a few minutes.

On April 7, a 6-year-old boy in Albion, Wis., was strangled in a car window when he and his three siblings were in the backseat of a 1996 Ford Taurus. The Dane County Sheriff’s Department reported that the parents had gone into an office to fill out a job application. The accident occurred when the 2-year-old sibling crawled into the driver’s seat and apparently activated the rear window control, trapping the older child’s neck.

But not all of the deaths over the years have involved small children. Sheila Johnson of Danville, Ind., lost her 11-year-old son, Mitchell, last year in a power-window accident. About three years ago, Damien Anthony, 15, was killed when he was entrapped by a power window in Oklahoma.

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Johnson said her son was sitting in the car, listening to music, spitting sunflower seeds out the window and waiting for his younger brother’s school play to end. He somehow hit the power window switch and was asphyxiated by the window.

“There’s no pain as bad as this,” she says. Mitchell, a 5th-grader who liked to play basketball, died on the way to the hospital. “I never dreamed anything like that could ever happen.

“Everyone said this was a ‘freak accident’ but then I found out this has happened many times to other children,” says Johnson. She said she’s dismayed that automakers have known about the dangers but have done little to warn parents. Everyone knows about seat belt safety and putting young children in the back seat of vehicles, she says, but they don’t realize what can happen with power windows.

Consumer groups want U.S. automakers to be required to install either power windows with auto-reverse mechanisms or the safer lever-type switches that pull up and push down.

The Senate passed a broad bill by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) earlier this year directing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to address the need for auto safety improvements. The Senate bill included the power-window issue among its child safety measures, but the bill failed in the House.

In the wake of the recent deaths, proponents of the safety measures have escalated their fight to get the auto safety rules included in a compromise bill.

Though both Ford and General Motors have begun to introduce safer switches and auto-reverse windows on certain vehicles, critics say the availability of the equipment is limited and the automakers have been slow to offer it.

In the most recent deaths, it appears that all of the vehicles involved had toggle or rocker switches that can be easily activated by accident, according to consumer advocates.

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It also appears that six of the seven children recently killed were trapped by the windows when they were left alone or unattended by an adult in the vehicle. Automakers have long contended that power-window acci- dents often occur when children are alone in a vehicle.

“These incidents are tragic reminders that children should never be left unsupervised in a vehicle and to never leave keys in an unattended vehicle,” says Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley. Though not all circumstances regarding the deaths are known, Ford “believes the majority of accidents involve children being left unsupervised in a running vehicle or left alone with the keys in the ignition.”

Some of the incidents, according to Kinley, involved the window switches being activated by other people in the vehicle while it was moving.

Jeanne Wright can be reached at jeanrite@aol.com.


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