I’ve asked myself that question, and my answer is always I don’t know and hope I don’t ever have to find out. But one woman did. She found a way to save herself and then made sure other women had a way to save themselves too. Thanks to her and her wild story, since 2002, all cars are required to have a glow-in-the-dark emergency release handle in the trunk.
Janette Fennell’s story and her subsequent battle to ensure all cars are equipped with car trunk emergency release handles first appeared on Atlas Obscura, a website committed to telling extraordinary stories in 2015, and then recently resurfaced on Reddit, in a TIL (Today I Learned) post.
But Janette’s story started two decades earlier.
Shortly before midnight on the night of October 29, 1995, Janette, her husband, Greig, and their nine-month-old son returned home from a friend’s house. They parked in the garage and her mind was already whirring with the things she still had to do to prep to teach at her church’s Sunday school the next morning. It’s an easy scene to imagine for any new mother trying to get anything done over the weekend. There should have been nothing out of the ordinary about the night.
As the garage door slid closed, two men rolled underneath the garage on their sides. As if that visual alone isn’t frightening enough, they also wore masks, one which pictured a sinister werewolf on its face.
The men held Janette and her husband at gunpoint and ordered them into the trunk. The kidnappers had no idea the Fennells’ baby was still strapped in his carseat in the car until the two new parents heard one of the kidnappers say, “there’s a baby.” After that, there was no mention of the baby, and they had no idea what had or would happen to the infant.
The kidnappers began to drive and the Fennells kept an ear out for sounds from their son to determine whether he was safe. They could hear nothing.
As the car navigated the streets of San Francisco and onto a highway, Janette began pulling on the carpet in the trunk. Somehow, she managed to expose wires, and thought there was a chance lights might flicker or act up enough to attract the attention of someone who might be able to help them. As the car drove on, bottoming out at times due to the weight of two adults in the trunk, no help came.
Then, the Fennells felt the car exit the highway, then the paved roads. When the car stopped, the kidnappers opened the trunk and made their demands. Janette tried to escape, but one of the men hit her in the head with his gun.
The kidnappers demanded money, bank cards, and pin numbers. After the Fennells turned that information over, the kidnappers locked them back in the trunk and said they’d return to kill them if the pin numbers failed.
Janette and her husband were left alone in a locked trunk with no light, and still no idea if their baby was safe or not.
And then Janette reports that she saw a light. In the area where she’d ripped the wires, she saw an impossible-to-be-there light shining on a little piece of wire. According to Janette and the story she told to Atlas Obscura the words she said next were not her own. She said, “I think I found the trunk release.”
Greig pulled the wire Janette had led him to and the trunk popped up. They scrambled out of the car and checked the backseat. No baby. No car seat.
Using an emergency key, they drove back to the city, called 9-1-1 and finally, finally, learned that their baby was safe. The kidnappers had left him sitting in his car seat outside the house.
Janette’s story could have been over there. Though the kidnappers have never been caught, she’d saved herself, her husband, and her son. She’d done the thing that was only supposed to happen in episodes of Criminal Minds. But Janette’s story doesn’t end there—and we owe her a debt of gratitude for it.
Janette collected data and began researching the issue. She lobbied lawmakers to pass a law that would require automakers to outfit vehicles with glow-in-the-dark emergency release handles. She undoubtedly saved lives.
“We have not been able to uncover one case of a person dying in a trunk since those releases were put in. We have plenty of stories of people getting put in the trunk by a thief, and taken to the ATM. But they found the release and jumped out,” Janette told Atlas Obscura.
You may not know it, but every passenger car built after 2002 has a trunk release mechanism built into the trunk.
It was mandated on September 1, 2001 by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) after years of lobbying that gained a vocal advocate in a woman who’d been kidnapped: Janette Fennell, of San Francisco.
Fennell and her husband were kidnapped in their own garage on October 29, 1995, and stuffed in the trunk of their Lexus. Their infant son was still in his safety seat in the backseat of the car, though he was later recovered unharmed. The kidnappers headed out with the Fennells trapped in their own trunk, not sure where they were going nor what was going to happen to them.
“…Janette started pulling on the carpeting in the trunk. She didn’t know why, exactly. But she was able to expose a bunch of wires, and she was pulling at them. [S]he thought that if she could make the lights flicker or flash, maybe someone would see it, maybe they would call 911, maybe the car would be pulled over…” according toAtlas Obscura.
After leaving paved roads behind, the kidnappers eventually pulled over, demanded cash, jewellery, bank cards, and PINs, and closed them back in the trunk, abandoning the couple. It was then that Fennell spotted a gap of light in the wires she’d exposed — the trunk release cable, wired to the activation button on the dashboard.
‘Briefly’ leaving a child in the car? A lot can happen
Motor Mouth: Will your self-driving car kidnap you?
The NHTSA had been petitioned as far back as 1984 about the need for a release switch to be incorporated into the trunks of passenger cars, stating ”that persons such as alarm and stereo installers, mechanics, playful children, pranksters, and crime victims may be trapped in the trunk. The petitioner also believed an elderly person might fall into the trunk and thereby become entrapped.” At the time, the agency declared the chances remote that such entrapments would be likely.
From 1984 to 1998, the agency would receive two dozen more requests for action. In 1998, The National Safe Kids Campaign was asked by NHTSA to form a task forceto investigate the matter, no doubt compelled by the tragic deaths of 11 children in three separate occurrences within three weeks of each other in July and August of 1998. Children dying trapped in hot trunks was not a new phenomenon, but it was definitely one the auto industry could address.
“What often happens in these accidents is that a child, perhaps exploring or playing hide-and-seek, pushes down the back seat until it lies flat, creating a passageway into the trunk. After crawling through, the child kicks the seat back upright and unwittingly gets locked inside,” according to a FairWarning piece. Many could only imagine a child pulling a trunk lid closed, not realizing this is the more likely way they could become trapped.
Joining that task force was Janette Fennell, who had founded her own non-profit, Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition (TRUNC) after her own horrific experience. They weren’t only petitioning for automakers to equip all cars with a trunk release; studies proved that children who find themselves trapped often went into a passive mode and waited for rescue. The release also had to be obvious to locate and simple to use.
If your car is a 2002 model or later, it has an interior trunk release lever or button. Keeping those children in mind, it will be an easy to locate glow-in-the-dark pull or button. Since the introduction of the device, no children have died in cars so equipped. Unfortunately, there were subsequent deaths in older models. If you have an earlier model car, you can get an aftermarket release for less than fifty bucks.
While the chances of getting kidnapped and stuffed in a trunk may be slim, the chances of kids playing hide-and-go-seek are far greater. Those presenting their cases to NHTSA were advocating for universal trunk releases, and some were thinking they were not required: two disparate groups. The FBI was asked if criminals, knowing there was an internal release in a trunk, would instead harm or immobilize their victims so they would be unable to get themselves freed. There were no studies on it, so they refused to guess. It came back to protecting children or others inadvertently locked in a trunk.
The same way we fight to combat children being accidentally left in car seats and dying from heat, we have to teach kids and remind parents about car safety even when the vehicle is sitting in the driveway.
Cars are not toys. You wouldn’t let your child climb under a car to play, don’t let them play inside it, either. Keep your parked car locked, and keep the key fobs out of reach of children. Locate the trunk release switch in your own car, and make sure it’s not covered by carpet or in any other way interfered with by trunk contents.
Explaining this to your child is your call: you either have a kid who will take it as information, or one who will see it as a challenge. I’d show mine.
Auto safety agency faces calls for overhaul as Biden presidency begins
January 21st, 2021 | by Christopher Jensen / New York Times News Service
For decades, across administrations of Republicans and Democrats, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has faced criticism from safety advocates who accuse it of routinely falling short of its mission.
Among their complaints: That the agency fails to promptly detect and act on deadly safety problems, such as a faulty ignition switch in General Motors cars that could turn off an air bag in a crash. That it fails to promptly carry out congressional safety mandates, keep track of the adequacy of recalls, strongly regulate autonomous vehicles and update safety standards. And that on occasion it is too deferential to the automakers.
NHTSA has occasionally conceded failures. But typically it has defended its performance, saying it faces a huge task and has done a good job. Fifty-three million vehicles were recalled in 2019, up from 35 million the previous year. Its actions last year included investigating and penalizing Hyundai and Kia for failing to recall vehicles promptly.
With the Biden administration just underway, a coalition of six automotive safety groups is urging it to do what critics say no administration has done: provide motorists with the protection they deserve by correcting chronic weaknesses in funding, transparency, staffing and leadership at the agency. Such critics have included members of Congress, the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General. Indeed, the agency’s performance is again being audited, according to a report from August.
The coalition is hoping that change is coming. The Biden administration has a chance to “restart the agency that should be leading the world when it comes to vehicle safety,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, one of the six groups.
The groups put together a 68-page report laying out ways for NHTSA to improve. It reflects the consensus of the Center for Auto Safety, the Consumer Federation of America, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, KidsAndCars.org, the Automotive Safety Research Institute and Ralph Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law, which published it.
The report calls on President Joe Biden to “select a tough, independent administrator not linked to the auto industry with the capacity to revitalize” the agency “and restock its inadequate technical personnel and meager coffers.”
NHTSA has strong regulatory authority and talented staff, but it needs an administration that is dedicated to protecting motorists and will resist pressure from the automakers, said Joan Claybrook, the author of the report and the agency’s top official from 1977 to 1981. For example, she said, some of the agency’s efforts to improve have been stymied by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
“The agency has been dissed and ignored and undercut,” Claybrook said in an interview.
There has been no announcement about a new NHTSA administrator, who would report to the secretary of the Department of Transportation. For that position, Biden has nominated Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and presidential candidate.
Claybrook is among safety advocates who say they are heartened by the choice of Buttigieg, who mentioned automotive safety during his presidential campaign. Sean Savett, a member of the Biden transition team, said in an email that Buttigieg was not available for comment.
Here are some of the report’s recommendations:
Substantially increase funding for vehicle safety programs. Their duties include making and enforcing safety standards, investigating safety defects and monitoring recalls. For the 2020 fiscal year, $194 million was allocated.
“It is a tiny amount of money for the challenge, particularly with new technology, with electric cars, with autonomous vehicles,” said Claybrook, who pointed out that the military spends more than that sum on its bands alone.
In 2015, the combined cost of military bands was reported to be about $437 million. A more recent figure was not immediately available.
Funding for the vehicle safety programs should be increased to $1 billion, the advocates’ report said.
Overhaul the New Car Assessment Program. It is too easy to get a top rating in its crash tests, the report said.
“There is almost no value from a consumer perspective,” Levine said. “They might as well be handing out gold stars in kindergarten.”
The crash tests should also start showing how well vehicles protect people of different ages, like children and the elderly.
Adopt regulations for autonomous vehicles. There should be no exemptions from safety standards that govern conventional vehicles, instead of a reliance on the industry to voluntarily do the right thing. At the same time, the agency must make sure it does not become so focused on autonomous or electric vehicles that it ignores the automobiles that most Americans drive, Levine said.
Require advanced safety technology on even the least-expensive vehicles. Examples include automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, lane departure and blind-spot warning.
“I really think that would be a huge game changer,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Take a tougher stance on recalls. For instance, give the agency the right to bring criminal charges against corporate executives for knowingly violating safety standards.
“Automakers continue efforts to minimize expensive recall costs by delaying the recall, narrowing the scope of a recall, or denying the defect,” the report said.
Also, prohibit the sale of used vehicles if there is a recall that has yet to be fixed.
Adopt new safety standards. These should include requiring improvements as varied as better headlights and designs to reduce the harm to pedestrians and bicyclists in a collision, something already done by the European Union.
Enact safety standards mandated by Congress. Safety groups, frustrated by what they see as NHTSA’s failure to act, have sometimes turned to Congress to pass safety regulations. But too many of the mandates have yet to be carried out, according to the report.
Significantly improve child safety. Like requiring foldaway child restraints built into the second row to eliminate problems with improperly installed child seats. Also, adopt standards that would warn parents if a rear-seat belt was unbuckled and warn if a child was left in a vehicle.
The report said safety regulation has worked. It estimates that 4.2 million lives have been saved since 1965, when Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed” focused Congress’ attention on automotive safety, resulting in safety standards and the agency now known as NHTSA.
Child vehicular heatstroke. Since 1990, 940 children in the United States have died in hot cars. The average number of deaths per year: 39 or one every 9 days! (Source: KidsAndCars.org)
If you are among those who are appalled by these staggering statistics and who find it inconceivable and unforgivable that a parent would abandon their child in a hot car to die, think and feel again…just as I did…after watching FATAL DISTRACTION, Susan Morgan Cooper‘s gripping documentary on a national crisis that begs for resolution.
In a March 2009 Washington Post feature article (Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?) that earned him a Pulitzer Prize, Gene Weingarten opened the door of understanding about the complexities of this issue. The article, covering the harrowing experiences of several couples whose children perished in a hot car and offering scientific explanations for the problem, in turn, reenforced the advocacy of practical initiatives to prevent the occurrence of these family tragedies.
It takes a special kind of insight and film making prowess ~ and conscience ~ to translate the emotional magnitude of such losses. Cooper, an acclaimed documentary film director and producer (Mirjana- One Girl’s Journey, An Unlikely Weapon, To the Moon and Back) has done just that in her latest work, FATAL DISTRACTION.
As is the case in her earlier films, Cooper delivers a compelling and multi-layered work that, in Weingarten’s terms, challenges our concepts of crime, punishment, and mercy.
At one level, the film focuses on the 2016 prosecution and conviction in Cobb County, Georgia of Justin Ross Harris for the death (two years earlier) of his 22-month-old son, Cooper. Harris was sentenced to life in prison without parole after a jury found him guilty of intentionally leaving Cooper inside his SUV, strapped in a rear-facing car seat.
At the same time, the story revolves around the experience of the mother left alone, sans child.
If one can say that a documentary has a star, then Leanna Harris, Cooper’s mother, is the centerpiece of this film, sharing with astonishing candor and intensity her version of the events from the time of the tragedy to the subsequent trial of her ex-husband. Her pain is palpable and her passion for justice is inspiring.
Alexandra Cooper’s camera captures the emotion and indomitable spirit of this grieving mother while footage assembled from the days of despair (home movies, the discovery of the child, the harrowing interrogation of the father, the notification of the mother) interweaves and conveys the agonizing trajectory of dismay, grief, and despair.
On another level, there is a clear point of view in this film regarding Harris’s trial ~ that it was a travesty of justice, facilitated by deficiencies in the investigative process and aggravated further by the court-TV circus with which we’ve become all too familiar that sensationalizes a trial, passes summary judgment on the accused, and revels in its own sense of self-importance. The viewer cannot help but be appalled by the TV footage of such flagrant violators of decency as Nancy Grace and Jane Velez-Mitchell who mercilessly indict the objects of their indignation.
Cooper counters with ample evidence of what she concludes are the failures of a legal system gone awry that allowed a man to be wrongfully convicted for what science would judge an accident.
To her credit ~ and here is a third level that defines the importance of the film ~ she bolsters her case with testimonials from other couples who have endured similar circumstances and, most importantly, with explanations from experts who provide critical perspectives on why such tragedies occur.
We learn about the irony of technological change ~ the results of equipping cars with air bags and thus shifting children from the front seat of the car to the rear and then in car seats positioned out of the driver’s view. We learn that a simple solution exists ~ the placement by auto manufacturers of car warning systems or hot car sensors ~ that amazingly has been opposed by the U.S. Auto Alliance and the Association of Global Automakers.
We learn from Dr. David Diamond, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of South Florida and a leading expert on memory lapse, the gut-wrenching incidents covered in the film reflect flaws of human brain processing that could and should be mitigated by the above proposed technological applications.
The documentary has deservedly prompted discussion on the issue of hot car deaths on programs on major media channels, NBC, CBS, ABC.
This is an important film, one that merits greater exposure and viewing…and a considerable amount of public discussion and legislative action. We need lose no more children because of avoidable tragedies. Thanks to Cooper, we better understand that truth.
“No one wants this to happen in their family,” said Amber Rollins, director of Kids and Cars, an advocacy group that tracks the data.
Rollins says what they are seeing from the data is alarming.
“The increase is really kind of almost hard to believe when you look at it,” Rollins added.
The increase comes from a place most drivers might not even think about. While a lot of the crashes often happen when a car is backing up, the numbers now show crashes caused when cars roll forward are on the rise.
Backover crashes have gone down since 2018 because just about every car on the road now has a backup camera but those backup cameras could still leave drivers vulnerable because no matter how good those cameras are, they don’t always show what’s directly in front of the car. That blind zone could put children in danger. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), front-over crashes are responsible for 366 deaths a year and leave 15,000 kids hurt.
WAFB’s Scottie Hunter asked Rollins if the blind zones are on every single car that’s on the road.
“Yes,” said Rollins. “So there’s a blind zone directly in front of all vehicles, including small sedans. This is universal… there’s not a vehicle out there that doesn’t have that blind zone.”
The 9News Investigators put that to the test with Christina Carter, a mom in Ascension Parish. With Carter in the driver’s seat, WAFB’s Scottie Hunter placed her three boys in front of the car to see exactly when she would be able to spot them in front of her vehicle. It wasn’t until 12 feet that the mom could barely see a hair on any of her sons’ heads.
”I can barely see the tip of… I’m guessing my oldest son’s head moving,” Carter said.
Scottie: “So, if you were in a hurry and didn’t pay attention to them being out there, this could be a tragedy?”
Carter: “Oh yeah. Definitely.”
Carter could finally see her kids fully at 14 feet in front of the vehicle. It’s an emotional realization that she says took her breath away.
”That’s very surprising,” said Carter. “It’s definitely different when it’s your kids that you’re seeing. I couldn’t see my own kids in front of my own car.”WAFB’s Scottie Hunter asked Carter if this is something every parent and every driver should pay attention to going forward.
“Oh yeah,” said Carter.
For drivers who are concerned about preventing these types of tragedies, Rollins says supervision is key.
”Knowing that is so important when you’ve got little ones,” said Rollins. “You need to know if they’re going outside. That’s how a lot of tragedies happen.”
The answer to preventing the crashes could also be found in new technology. New features are being loaded into many vehicles now, like the new Chevy Tahoe from Gerry Lane. Kenny Robinson, a salesman with Gerry Lane, says a new bird’s eye view technology is standard on the 2021 model.
”We’re human and we can only see what we can see,” said Robinson. “This just gives you some added protection.”
With a handful of strategically positioned cameras all around the truck, it let’s the driver see everything around them and offers alerts when anything gets too close.
”If somebody walks across right now, the whole screen will light up red and your seats will vibrate,” said Robinson.
A lot like the backup cameras, the folks at Kids and Cars want new technology to become standard on every car. Until then, parents like Carter say what WAFB found should make everyone pay a little extra attention when they get behind the wheel.
”If we all just take I guess a few more minutes to do that then maybe we can avoid other tragedies,” said Carter.
In order to find the data from Kids and Cars on the frontover crashes, click here.
More content, including a test of blind zones on large, medium, and small size cars can be found on WAFB Plus on your favorite streaming device.
Former President Lyndon Johnson was probably not the first, nor certainly the last, to note that more Americans have died on the nation’s roads than in all of its wars combined. He called it “the highway disease” in a speech in 1966, when he signed legislation that aimed to curb the slaughter.
At the time, more than 50,000 Americans were dying annually in traffic crashes. A new highway safety bureau, later named the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, was created to set vehicle safety standards, oversee recalls of defective cars and trucks, conduct safety research and consumer education, and distribute traffic safety grants to states—all helping to reduce the body count.
But lately NHTSA, which turns 50 this month, has been asleep at the wheel, safety advocates say, playing its part in the Trump administration campaign to cut business regulations. The agency, part of the Department of Transportation, has scaled back key activities even as progress against “the highway disease” appears to have stalled. After traffic deaths hit an all-time low of 32,479 in 2011, they began climbing and in recent years have ranged between 36,000 and 38,000.
“It’s a total do–nothing agency now,” complained Joan Claybrook, who headed NHTSA from 1977 to 1981. NHTSA “continues to take a back seat to whatever the industry wants,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group.
NHTSA officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but said in an email that a key safety metric, the fatality rate—measured by traffic deaths per total miles driven—“has improved steadily’’ since 1970. “We will continue to work to fulfill the agency’s mission of saving lives on our roads and highways,” the email said.
Automakers, including Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai, did not respond to requests for comment.
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Records and interviews show that NHTSA has failed over the past four years to complete safety standards that could increase the chance of people surviving, or avoiding, a crash. President Donald Trump set the tone within days of taking office with an executive order directing federal agencies to rescind two rules for each new one they issue.
Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Auto Safety).
One consequence is that NHTSA is years late in meeting Congressional deadlines to finalize a host of safety measures. In place of enforcible rules, the agency has favored guidelines and voluntary agreements with automakers on implementing new safety technologies and developing self-driving cars.
NHTSA did push hard on one rule—to weaken mileage standards for cars and trucks in the fuel economy program it jointly manages with the Environmental Protection Agency.
In April, the agencies issued a final rule to relax the targets set by the Obama administration for 2021 to 2026 models, which even some automakers opposed. At the same time, the rule stripped California and other states of the power to set their own tougher standards, a move the states are challenging in court. NHTSA defended the action as a major safety advance, saying it will hold down vehicle prices and encourage motorists to replace older models with newer, safer ones.
NHTSA also has resisted for more than three years an order to raise penalties on automakers for violations of mileage standards. A 2015 law requires inflation adjustments so the impact of penalties doesn’t weaken over time. NHTSA’s claim that the law doesn’t apply to the fuel economy program triggered lawsuits by 13 states and environmental groups. The agency lost the latest round in August when a federal appeals court rejected its position.
Civil settlements with automakers, dealers and component manufacturers for such offenses as hiding safety defects and delaying recalls also have declined sharply under Trump, a FairWarning review of NHTSA records shows.
NHTSA imposed 49 civil penalties totaling $685,079,550 during the eight years of the Obama administration, including 17 multi-million dollar fines against Toyota, Honda, BMW, General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Hyundai and others, FairWarning found.
The agency has levied a total of seven penalties for $231,270,000 during Trump’s four-year term. Nearly the whole amount was what NHTSA described as a record-breaking penalty of $210 million against Hyundai and Kia over their handling of recalls sparked by engine fires—though $81 million was the actual fine, with the rest to be deferred or invested in safety improvements. [For a breakdown of penalty settlements by year, click here]
NHTSA has also reached a dubious milestone, going an entire presidential term without a permanent head. Heidi King was nominated as NHTSA administrator and served on an acting basis for more than a year, but resigned in 2019 after the Senate failed to confirm her.
Yet critics acknowledge that the agency, and its safety mission, have long suffered from neglect no matter who is in office.
David Friedman, former deputy administrator of NHTSA, is vice president for advocacy at Consumer Reports (photo courtesy of Consumer Reports)
“NHTSA is a chronically underfunded and over-politicized agency, and those two combined can make it very hard for it to do its work,” said David Friedman, NHTSA’s deputy administrator from 2013 to 2015 and now vice president for advocacy at Consumer Reports.
Road crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans ages one through 19. About 100 people perish daily, the equivalent of a fully-loaded Boeing 747 crashing every three or four days. Fatalities aren’t the whole story. Well more than 2 million people a year are injured in the U.S., according to NHTSA estimates, and health care and other financial costs annually run into the tens of billions of dollars.
Yet while Americans are sensitive to many lesser risks, the cruel arithmetic doesn’t appear to fully register with politicians or the general public. That may be why, despite road crashes causing 95 percent of U.S. transportation deaths, NHTSA’s budget is about one-sixteenth that of the Federal Aviation Administration.
NHTSA currently has 620 full-time staff and a 2020 budget of $989.3 million, about two-thirds of it passed along to state and local governments as traffic safety grants. The agency counted a staff of about 900 before the Reagan administration imposed drastic budget cuts in 1981. Its staff has mostly ranged from 600 to 650 ever since, as Republican and Democratic administrations have been consistent about one thing: never giving NHTSA that much to work with.
“It’s not hard to see that doubling, tripling, quadrupling the workforce would allow NHTSA to save more lives—a lot more lives,” said Friedman. “It would allow the agency to put more standards on the books, update consumer information in ways that get more innovative safety technology into the hands of consumers, and increase enforcement around defects.”
Larry Hershman was at NHTSA from 1999 until 2017, most of the time in the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation, which reviews safety complaints and oversees recalls of defective vehicles. “We were always understaffed,” Hershman told FairWarning. “You’re going up against a company like General Motors or Toyota or Ford, and they have a product liability or safety group with dozens or hundreds of engineers and tons of lawyers. And generally, we would have maybe a couple of investigators working on a particular product area or manufacturer.”
“Certainly, the staffing levels could have been much better to level the playing field,” Hershman said. “I think we did a pretty good job considering the limitations.”
Larry Hershman, a former safety defect investigator at NHTSA. (Photo courtesy of Hershman).
Hershman recalled his irritation when lawmakers bashed NHTSA for lapses and delays. “They really rip into the agency for not doing this or that. But where’s the money?” he said. “Come on, you can’t have it both ways.”
Perhaps feeling picked on by lawmakers, safety advocates and the auto industry, NHTSA is something of a fortress agency. Interview requests are rarely granted, and in dealing with journalists NHTSA can be gun-shy and stingy with information.
It has repeatedly run afoul of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which requires agencies to disclose public records. Since 2007, NHTSA has been the target of at least nine successful FOIA lawsuits (Full disclosure: FairWarning has a pending FOIA suit against NHTSA involving records requested a year ago.)
Among NHTSA’s courtroom opponents has been Randy Whitfield, a statistician with Quality Controls Systems Corp., a consulting firm. Whitfield told FairWarning that NHTSA currently is sitting on two FOIA requests for data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, a database on crash deaths used by researchers. According to Whitfield, the agency used to routinely release this sort of information, but now withholds it.
“Am I going to have to go to court to get the FARS data, for God’s sake?” Whitfield said.
NHTSA over the years has issued dozens of safety standards, from seat belt, airbag and child seat requirements that have saved tens of thousands of lives, to less-familiar rules on the performance of everything from tires, headlights, brakes, door latches and roofs. But its rulemaking efforts were strongest in earlier years. More recently, the agency has focused more energy on campaigns to encourage safe driving and supervising recalls.
Adopting safety standards is, by design, a drawn-out process that has become more laborious over time. It requires years of procedural steps, including an exhaustive analysis of the proposed rule’s monetary costs and benefits—always with the knowledge that the industry can go to court to tie up regulations it doesn’t like.
David Strickland, NHTSA’s administrator from 2010 to 2014, said that completing a rulemaking in four years “is crazy fast.” And once a standard is issued, manufacturers typically have several more years to implement the change in all new models—creating an opportunity to market the safety feature as a pricey add-on before it becomes standard. In the long period of gestation, people are injured and killed who would have been spared had things moved more quickly.
Consider the long struggle over backup cameras to cut the toll of backover accidents, which were causing thousands of injuries and over 200 deaths annually—mostly of small children or elderly people. The horror of parents killing their own children led Congress to pass the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Act of 2007, named for a 2-year old whose father, a pediatrician, backed over the toddler in their driveway on Long Island in New York.
[This video was produced for the advocacy group KidsAndCars in 2011, as part of a campaign to speed a requirement for rear cameras in new vehicles]
The original timeline called for a final rule by 2011, with cameras in all new vehicles by 2015. But NHTSA kept pushing back the deadline, reflecting criticism from the White House Office of Management and Budget of a lopsided comparison of costs to install cameras against the far lower dollar values assigned for lives saved.
Fed up with the delays, consumer groups and parent-activists eventually sued to force adoption of the standard. In March, 2014, a day before a federal appeals court hearing, NHTSA caved and issued the standard. By then, most new vehicles already had cameras, though manufacturers still had until 2018 to install them in all models.
Other safety rules ordered by Congress, but years behind schedule, have triggered an investigation by the Government Accountability Office.
The overdue rules were ordered in transportation bills passed in 2012 and 2015. One standard sought by Congress aimed to improve the structural integrity of long-distance buses after a series of deadly wrecks. Others involved child seat protections in side-impact crashes; a mandate that recall notices be sent to vehicle owners by text or email; and a requirement for seat belt reminders in back seats, where many passengers fail to buckle up. That would be “an easy, simple, low-hanging fruit change” that could save lives, remarked Janette Fennell, founder of the advocacy group KidsAndCars.
None of these rules has been completed.
Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. (Photo courtesy of Advocates)
The delays led Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) to rebuke Heidi King, then NHTSA’s acting administrator, at a 2018 hearing. “It’s on our regulatory agenda as ‘in progress’,” King responded at one point. “I appreciate your support for all the public safety regulations that we’re working on,” she said another time.
The list of blown deadlines “goes on and on,” Markey complained. “The agency has to do its work, finish these rulemakings,” he told King. “The longer this goes…, the more endangered the public is.”
Asked about the delays, NHTSA told FairWarning in its written response that safety rules can’t be issued without first being adequately researched. “Regardless of statutory deadlines, if the underlying research does not exist, it needs to be developed and performed.”
In October, the GAO agreed to investigate the delays at the request of members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. They asked the GAO to determine if funding constraints or unfilled positions were keeping NHTSA from doing its job.
“These safety mandates cannot save lives if they are not carried out,” said the letter to the GAO from Energy and Commerce chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ), consumer protection subcommittee chair Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) and member Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Delaware).
“This blatant disregard for Congressional directives not only endangers the lives of all who travel on our roads,” the letter continued, “but also suggests that NHTSA may face institutional challenges that hinder its ability to fulfill its safety-critical mission.”
NHTSA has also come under attack for failing to set rules for autonomous features that advocates say could save thousands of lives, but currently are not required in vehicles nor covered by minimum performance standards. This includes standards for fully self-driving cars and for autonomous features already found in many new models.
A recent analysis by Consumer Reports found that 11,800 lives could be saved annually if four of these features—automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection systems, and blind spot and lane departure warnings—were in use fleetwide.
Automatic braking systems, intended to reduce rear-end collisions, are supposed to be installed in all new models by September, 2022, under a voluntary agreement between automakers and NHTSA. Because this and other advanced features aren’t required, nor subject to performance standards, you could have one manufacturer “rolling out a wonderful system” while another’s advanced features are faulty, so that consumers “don’t know what they’re buying,” said Cathy Chase, president of the safety group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
NHTSA defended the use of voluntary measures. “The rulemaking process…is time-consuming and lengthy,” it said, quoting from a recent speech by deputy administrator James Owens. “On the other hand, voluntary cooperation allows us to implement new programs and information sharing in a matter of months, as compared to years.”
A crashworthiness test for the government’s star safety rating system for new model cars and trucks, formally known as the New Car Assessment Program. (U.S. Department of Transportation/NHTSA photo)
Critics also bemoan the sinking value of the NHTSA star ratings that for decades have guided car shoppers, while also teaching the industry that safety sells. Formally known as the New Car Assessment Program, or NCAP, it awards up to five stars to new cars and trucks, based on how they hold up in crash tests.
But the system has not been updated to differentiate vehicles with advanced safety technologies, though a growing number have them. Moreover, 98 percent of new cars and trucks get either a 4-or 5-star rating. “There is no comparative value in the system anymore,” Jason Levine of the Center for Auto Safety told FairWarning.
“It’s the equivalent of handing out candy at Halloween: Everybody gets some.”
Updates to NCAP could help to address an alarming trend: as vehicles have become safer, resulting in fewer deaths for vehicle occupants, people on the outside—pedestrians and bicyclists—have suffered a rising toll. While total crash fatalities rose 9 percent from 2010 to 2019, according to one analysis, pedestrian deaths increased 44 percent.
Some have called for including pedestrian safety in the star ratings–for example, by crediting vehicles with systems to detect and brake for pedestrians when the driver doesn’t see them.
NHTSA spent nearly two years working to update and refine the NCAP program during the Obama administration, but didn’t finish. Under Trump, NHTSA abandoned the work.
Then in October 2019 the agency announced it was reviving the effort, saying it planned “to propose significant updates and upgrades to the New Car Assessment Program in 2020.”
TEL AVIV, Israel, Dec. 15, 2020 /PRNewswire/ — Vayyar, the global leader in 4D imaging radar technology, is transforming automotive safety with its production-ready Radar-on-Chip (RoC) platform, which enables OEMs to achieve leading-edge vehicle safety while achieving unprecedented cost efficiencies.
Vayyar’s automotive-grade, AEC-Q100 qualified RoC is a game-changing solution. The chip features up to 48 transceivers, an internal digital signal processor (DSP) and microcontroller unit (MCU) for real-time signal processing. Capable of seeing through objects and able to operate effectively in all weather conditions, Vayyar’s single-chip solution can replace over a dozen other sensors and negates the need for expensive LIDAR and cameras.
Within the cabin, one multifunctional Vayyar chip can support a multitude of systems, including intruder alerts, Child Presence Detection, enhanced Seat Belt Reminders and eCall to alert emergency services in the event of a crash. It delivers a revolutionary level of safety, utterly unobtainable with traditional single-function sensors.
This breakthrough solution fulfils the functions of multiple chips by sensing, computing, processing, mapping and imaging targets with just a single radio-frequency integrated circuit (RFIC). The platform supports Vayyar’s mission to ensure that safety is available and affordable for all car manufacturers and their key suppliers, at a time when modern cars are becoming increasingly crowded with sensors.
Today, there are more than 100 sensors in a typical car, with analysts predicting that this will double by 2030. However, Vayyar’s new production-ready RoC offers unprecedented potential and a unique opportunity to cut cost and complexity while improving safety.
“By replacing multiple sensors with our multifunctional, scalable platform, the possibilities for simplicity and savings are substantial. In addition, regulations and standards are rising and to achieve 5-star ratings, automakers are moving away from traditional solutions,” explains Ian Podkamien, Head of Automotive at Vayyar. “Our multi-award winning technology, recognised by organisations such as CLEPA, equips vehicles with the instincts to save lives, providing uncompromising and affordable safety. What’s more, its price point is similar to a single-function 3×4 2D/3D radar solution, but with substantial added value.”
The platform provides exceptionally high resolution and an extremely wide field of view to deliver unsurpassed precision and detail. The robust sensor is also engineered for scalability, seamlessly facilitating the deployment of emerging features via over-the-air (OTA) software updates. This effectively future-proofs vehicles as new safety requirements and standards emerge.
Central to the platform’s potential is its ability to reduce complexity, in order to cut direct and indirect costs. Vayyar has the in-house expertise to deliver a full end-to-end solution, including hardware, software, development and testing resources, streamlining the integration process for Tier 1 suppliers and OEMs to minimise effort, costs and risk.
By providing a high-performance, cost-effective and multifunctional sensor, Vayyar’s technology closes the gap between rising safety demands and feasible tech adoption, ensuring that affordable, uncompromising safety is available to all.
Further information on Vayyar’s cutting-edge 4D imaging ROC technology is available at www.vayyar.com/auto.
About Vayyar Imaging (Automotive)
Vayyar’s intelligent sensors create holistic safety opportunities for in-cabin and ADAS, using automotive-grade 4D imaging radar technology. At the core of these sensors is a high-performance Radar-on-Chip that supports up to 48 transceivers for exceptional resolution. With an ultra-wide field of view, Vayyar’s 60GHz and 79GHz single-chip radar modules cover large areas to reduce the number of sensors in vehicles. They provide comprehensive detection in and around the vehicle, while simultaneously tracking multiple targets and objects. Vayyar technology is multi-functional, affordable and available for mass production. The radar-based platform is robust in all road conditions, while protecting user privacy. Vayyar plans to continue developing the next generation of sensor technology that is miniature, affordable and versatile enough to enable a safer world.
Unlike traditional radar solutions that are based around 2 to 3 transmitting antennas and 3 to 4 receiving antennas, 4D imaging radar leverages a Multiple Input Multiple Output 48-antenna array for high-resolution mapping of its surroundings. The rich point cloud data output combined with an ultra-wide azimuth-elevation field of view, delivers detection and tracking with pinpoint accuracy, making it the ultimate safety sensor for the road ahead.
Throughout, Harris maintained his young son’s death was an accident – a tragic mistake dozens of parents make every year.
On Friday night, while attending a screening for the film in Atlanta, Harris’ parents spoke about their son and the case for the first time.
“I want people to know that he is innocent and an innocent man is sitting in prison and that he was not treated fairly,” his mother Evelyn Harris said. “I want a fair and honest trial. I want him to be vindicated. He’s a good man.”
His father, Reggie Harris, echoed those emotions.
“People need to know who he really is. And he really cherished his son with every breath he took,” he said. “Everybody has faults, he had faults, but that doesn’t have anything to do with murdering your child.”
The Harrises said they were advised not to speak out during the trial or the years after to protect the integrity of the jury.
They said the media and the prosecutors portrayed their son as a monster. In reality, the prosecution painted Harris as a man looking to start a new life – one away from his wife and child.
The documentary’s director said her film is a more accurate depiction of Ross Harris.
“It’s a gross, gross miscarriage of justice and it makes me very angry, extremely angry,” director Susan Morgan Cooper said. “Documentaries have a great power and you just watch me through this documentary – we are going to make sure that Justin Ross Harris gets released from prison and has a fair trial.”
A jury convicted Harris on all counts. At the time, Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds, who now heads the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said that he believed “justice was served … on behalf of young Cooper Harris.”
A judge will hear Harris’s motion for a new trial in December.
Front blinds spots are a hidden danger on all vehicles
BY MICHELLE POE, DANIEL KOVACH & HEIDI HATCH, KUTV MONDAY, NOVEMBER 9TH 2020
SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) — It is the leading cause of deaths when children are around cars — and it’s not being backed over.
The danger is the blind spot in the front of your vehicle. It’s something that’s not been widely talked about, and most don’t know about it until it’s too late.
2News enlisted the help of Primary Children’s Spot the Tot Program and set up a demonstration with Angie Ostler, a mother of five, behind the wheel, and her 3-year-old Alex in front of her SUV.
We slowly have Alex move back. At 6 feet away, Angie says she can see the top of Alex’s head, but it wouldn’t be obvious if she didn’t know what she was looking for. With Alex eight feet in front of her SUV, and while leaning forward and looking for him, Angie sees Alex’s eyes.
2News enlisted the help of Primary Children’s Spot the Tot Program and set up a demonstration with Angie Ostler, a mother of five, behind the wheel, and her 3-year-old Alex in front of her SUV. (Photo: KUTV)
“Sitting back, it’s still very hard to see,” Ostler said.
All of that was with Alex standing up. Experts tell us most frontovers — when children are hurt or killed because a driver moving forward very slowly didn’t see them — happen when children are playing around the front area of a vehicle.
“If he were sitting down, I wouldn’t see him at all. There’s absolutely no way I would see him. That actually makes me have anxiety even talking about it,” Ostler said.
2News enlisted the help of Primary Children’s Spot the Tot Program and set up a demonstration with Angie Ostler, a mother of five, behind the wheel, and her 3-year-old Alex in front of her SUV. (Photo: KUTV)
It’s a situation that became all too real for a Kearns family. In April 2015, Kendra Moad’s grandfather went to move his truck, not realizing 20-month-old Kendra followed him out. He didn’t see her in front of the vehicle and ran over her. Kendra was rushed to the hospital, but didn’t make it.
“We know from the data that over 70 percent of these accidents, it is either a family member or relative that’s driving the car,” said Jessica Strong, the community health manager at Primary Children’s Hospital.
We talk frequently about making sure you’re not backing over children when you’re coming out of your driveway or a parking spot, but it’s important to know that there are blind spots in the front, too — especially if it’s a high-profile vehicle.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says frontovers are responsible for 366 deaths a year and more than 15,000 injuries. Children are most often the victims.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says frontovers are responsible for 366 deaths a year and more than 15,000 injuries. Children are most often the victims. (Graphic: KUTV)
In fact, the group kidsandcars.org says frontovers are responsible for 30% of fatalities in children 14 years old and younger when they’re around vehicles, even more than backovers. Utah has the sixth most frontovers in the country.
Strong said the best way to prevent frontovers is to walk around your car before you get in, put down your window, and listen for children or others in the area.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says frontovers are responsible for 366 deaths a year and more than 15,000 injuries. Children are most often the victims. (Graphic: KUTV)
“There’s really no substitution for that human intervention,” she said.
Another important preventative measure is to avoid distractions.
Jessica Strong is the community health manager at Primary Children’s Hospital. (Photo: KUTV)
“…so put down your cell phone, turn down the radio, avoid any of those distractions as you’re doing these seemingly simple but often dangerous tasks,” Strong said.
Some vehicles are now being equipped with front view cameras, but Strong says you can’t rely on them completely:
Unfortunately, sometimes it gives us a false sense of security. We think ‘oh, I have a backup camera, I don’t need to walk around my car,’ but that’s not true. We still see backovers and frontovers in vehicles that have that technology.”
Taking that extra minute to walk around and be aware is something experts and police agree could end up saving a life.
There’s more information on frontovers and backovers at:
Baby Gavin Gholston and toddler Ryatt Hensley both faced untimely deaths after overheating in vehicles in Lafayette Parish.
Gavin, 11 months, died on a June day in 2012 in a hot vehicle parked at a workplace after his father forgot to drop him off at daycare that morning. Ryatt, 2, was found dead over the weekend in a vehicle parked outside of a residential area.
In the first case, Robert “Matt” Gholston faced no criminal charges. Investigators determined the death was a horrible tragedy, not a crime. The man had suffered the loss of his son. It was punishment enough.
In the more recent case, Natalie Broussard, Ryatt’s mother, was arrested and charged with negligent homicide. Both cases are under the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office jurisdiction. The Sheriff’s Office has released little information about either case.
“The circumstances were different,” said Captain John Mowell, spokesperson for LPSO. “We determined there was no criminal intent with the first one. This one, we believe there was at least negligence.”
The Sheriff’s Office could point to no other cases in at least 10 years within its jurisdiction where an infant or toddler had died from heat stroke in a vehicle.
Even if more information were publicly available, it’s difficult to say why one parent faces criminal charges while another does not, according to Amber Rollins, director of KidsandCars.org, a nonprofit that has tracks and analyzes pediatric deaths caused by heatstroke in cars.
“You could have two different cases with nearly identical circumstances, and in one case the parent is charged with extremely harsh charges and in the other they’re not charged at all,” Rollins said. “And there really just doesn’t seem to be any consistency across the board.”
Her organization has identified about 500 deaths across the country involving parents and caregivers who said they were not aware they had left their babies in hot cars.
No criminal charges were filed in about 41% of those cases. In about 32% of the cases, a parent or caregiver was charged and convicted of a crime. In about 11% of cases, someone was charged with a crime but was not convicted in court. Another 16% of cases were either still open or had an unknown status.
Charges also varied widely, ranging from manslaughter and other felonies to misdemeanors such as child endangerment.
“If any case is truly a case where a parent unknowingly left a child, then criminal charges should absolutely not be filed,” Rollins said. “The whole point of criminalizing something is to prevent it from happening again in the first place. We think that actually goes in the opposite direction of what you want to do. If someone sees this as a criminal issue, they think it doesn’t apply to me. If parents are really honest with themselves, every parent has lost awareness that their child is in the backseat when they’re sleep deprived. The difference, in most cases, is that something triggered them to remember.”
Although these cases are not terribly common, child-safety activists have been trying to raise awareness of how easy it is for a parent or caregiver to forget a child in a vehicle.
The part of the brain responsible for performing habitual tasks such as driving to and from work suppresses the part of the brain responsible for processing the here and now and changes to routine, such as dropping a child off at daycare, according to David Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of South Florida who researches the psychology behind these cases. The subconscious memory is much more likely to take over when someone is stress, fatigued or sleep-deprived, all of which are especially common for parents of young children, Diamond said.
“Parents lose awareness that their children are in their cars,” Diamond said in a prepared statement. “Tragically, these parents report that they had pictures of their child on their desks, they talked about their child, and even left work on time to pick up their child from daycare.”
On a hot summer day, a vehicle’s temperature can reach 125 degrees within minutes, even with the windows cracked. Children can also die of heatstroke when it’s just 60 degrees outside if left in a vehicle for an extended period of time, according to KidsandCars.org.
Rollins and others have pushed for laws that require car companies to include safety features alerting a driver if a child or pet is left unattended in a vehicle. The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill earlier this year that would require such features.
In the meantime, some parents and caregivers have relied on tools such as the eClip, a low-cost device that attaches to a car seat or diaper bag and sends alerts through a smartphone when a user walks more than 25 feet away from the vehicle.
“It’s forgotten-baby syndrome. Just like you can forget how you got to work because you’re absorbed in other things, you can forget that you have a baby in the car,” said Michael Braunold, who developed eClip and other childcare safety products as CEO of Elepho. “That’s why in the majority of cases, there’s no prosecution. It’s very hard to prove negligence.”