BY JANETTE FENNELL
I know firsthand how a two-inch piece of plastic can save a life. One night in October 1995, my husband and I returned home with our 9-month-old son. As we pulled into our garage, masked men appeared, put guns to our heads and shoved us into the trunk of our own car. They sped off, first on San Francisco’s city streets, then a highway and finally what felt like a dirt road. The car braked. There, in the middle of nowhere, they robbed us of everything and left us to die in the in the trunk of our vehicle. I had no idea where our baby was, and they refused to answer my pleas. Terrified, I clawed at the walls of the trunk looking for anything, until finally, buried under the trunk’s covering, we found the cable connecting the passenger compartment’s trunk release button to the trunk latch. My husband pulled on it and the trunk popped open. We climbed out of the car, were stunned that our son was no longer in the back seat, found a pay phone, and called 911 to find out if our son had been kidnapped. After an eternity, we were told the police found our son, still safely in his car seat in front of our home. My story had a happy ending, but it could have turned out differently. I was surprised that no one tracked statistics, so I gathered my own. I found more than 1,000 victims of trunk entrapment over several decades, including more than 300 deaths and dozens of children who entered the trunk innocently, became trapped and died. Just as cases of children suffocating in refrigerators in the 1950s led to new safety standards, trunk entrapment called out for a solution. The answer was simple: a small, two-inch glow-in-the-dark plastic internal trunk release. If there had been a release in my trunk, we could have jumped out at any stop light and fled to safety. Auto manufacturers had considered such a release decades earlier, but decided against installing them — at a cost of under 50 cents. Though the solution was simple, the process was not. It took three years, a herculean effort, and several tragic trunk entrapment deaths to get a government rule written requiring all vehicles to have trunk releases. After another three years, that rule finally went into effect and the auto industry was required to install internal trunk releases. As of September 2001, it became standard equipment in all new model year 2002 vehicles, and has since saved many lives. In fact, we cannot find a single case where a person has died from being trapped in a trunk with an internal release. My nonprofit organization, KidsAndCars.org, continues to advocate for consumer protections that safeguard children in or around cars. We’ve waded through miles of red tape to address dangerous engineering oversights in power windows and gearshifts that cause preventable deaths. We’ve fought to increase rear visibility to prevent small children from being backed over. At times, fighting for these protections has felt almost like being back in that trunk, searching for the right lever to pull — except that this time it’s a lever of government and it’s not my life on the line, but those of Americans I’ll never meet. Protecting children has required much more than just taking the fight to Congress. We’ve had to keep working even after a law is passed and ensure that federal agencies actually implement and enforce the law. When we fought to improve rear visibility behind vehicles, we actually had to sue the Department of Transportation to get into gear and release the standard — and it still isn’t fully implemented today. It took 16 years for the government to require seat belts, and 21 years to require airbags. It’s that difficult. But legislation moving right now in Congress threatens to have a devastating impact on our work. Under the guise of “reform,” a bill called the Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA) would add a maze of additional bureaucracy to the life-saving protections. Instead of making it easier to implement protections, the RAA is a recipe for more red tape and additional layers of bureaucracy in a process meant to protect our health and safety. But it’s not just vehicle safety at risk, it’s consumer protections across the board, from those governing dangerous chemicals, to workers’ protections, to food safety. On behalf of the untold number of people alive because of that two-inch piece of plastic and everyone else who relies on safer roads, cleaner air and water, and a safe workplace, I call on Congress to vote against the RAA. All it’ll do is prevent the next two-inch piece of plastic — whatever it may be — from becoming a reality and saving lives. And that’s just not right.
Janette Fennell is president and founder of KidsAndCars.org and a resident of Philadelphia. A personal tragedy related to car safety inspired Fennell to found KidsAndCars.org and dedicate her career in advocating for injury control and child safety. She is recognized as the national leader for child safety as it relates to the dangers children face in and around motor vehicles with an in-depth specialty regarding events that take place off public roads and highways; most commonly referred to as nontraffic incidents.
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