After carjackers locked her in the trunk of her family car for hours in 1995, former sales and marketing executive Janette Fennell launched a new career in auto safety advocacy. While pushing a successful effort to get trunk releases required in all cars, Fennell found that children were dying and being injured in and around cars. But these cars weren¿t on the highway. Gradually, she saw a trend: cases of parents and other caregivers backing over children, often in their own driveways or in parking lots. By 2004, with the increasing popularity of SUVs and pickup trucks, these backover cases made up about half of the fatalities she was finding.
Fennell's efforts, along with those of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and Consumers Union, led to the February passage of a new law dealing with "non-traffic" auto safety risks to children called the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act. The law is named for Cameron Gulbransen, a 2-year-old who died in 2002 after an SUV driven by his father backed over him.
Included in the law: requirements to protect children from being backed over, being strangled by a power window or being hurt when a car is accidentally put into gear and starts moving. The legislation was cosponsored by Senator Hillary Clinton, D-NY; Senator John Sununu, R-NH, Representative Peter King, R-NY, and Representative Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill. There has never been a rear visibility standard for vehicles until now.
Since 2000, more than 1,500 children have died in non-traffic incidents, with more than 200 fatalities in 2008 according to Kids and Cars, the group Fennell founded in 1998. Back-over incidents account for 44 percent of all non-traffic fatalities from 2002-2007, involving children less than 15 years old. Almost all the incidents happened on private property; those children aren't counted in the traffic fatality data compiled by federal regulators.
Greg Gulbransen, a pediatrician, pleaded with Congress last year to pass the legislation. He told the Senate Commerce Committee that he couldn't "begin to describe the sickening shock and devastation" of finding his son dying on the driveway. "I looked where I was driving but I never saw him. I never had a chance of seeing Cameron because he was too small. Too small for the large blind zones that plague our vehicles."
He said that only later did he learn about available technologies such as cameras and sensors that would have warned him that his son was behind the SUV.
Also called the "Kids and Cars Act," the law focuses on three auto safety issues:
Rear visibility. The U.S. Department of Transportation must establish a standard within three years to provide drivers with ways to detect a person, including a small child, behind a vehicle. This could be done with additional mirrors, sensor devices, cameras or other technology and may differ by vehicle. All vehicles must be in compliance within four years of the rule's enactment. Presumably, automakers could meet whatever standard is developed either by changing vehicle design, adding technology such as cameras and sensors, or both.
Power windows. If a vehicle has power windows, they must now have a switch that automatically reverses their direction if they hit an obstruction. This rule became mandatory for all vehicles manufactured for sale in the U.S. after October 1, 2008. According to NHTSA, The purpose of this rule is to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities to people, especially children, when they unintentionally close the power windows on themselves by leaning against or kneeling on the switch- or when other occupants accidentally activate the switch.
Gearshifts. By September 1, 2010, every car and truck sold in the United States must have a mechanism that prevents it from being shifted out of Park unless a foot is on the brake. This is designed to prevent children from accidentally putting a car into gear, causing it to roll. About 20 percent of new vehicles still don't have these shift interlocks, Fennell says.
Phil Haseltine, president of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS), says that even if every new car built starting now was equipped with a back-up camera, it would take more than two generations of 1- to 5-year-olds until all the vehicles on the road have them. Rear cameras and back-up sensors are already optional on many new and used vehicles, so car shoppers should keep an eye out for them.
Meanwhile, to keep children safe around cars and trucks, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends that you:
- Ensure that children are properly supervised at all times, especially when vehicles might be present.
- Teach children not to play in, under or around vehicles.
- Avoid making the driveway a playground. If children play in this area, make sure it's only when no vehicles are present. To further protect children when they are playing outside, separate the driveway from the road with a physical barrier to prevent any cars from entering.
- Never leave vehicles running, and keep all vehicles, even those in driveways and garages, locked.
- Always assume children could be present and carefully check the street, driveway and area around a vehicle before backing up. If children are outside, know where they are and have them stay in full view. Look behind as you back out slowly, with your windows rolled down to listen for children who may have dashed behind your vehicle, and be prepared to stop.
- Remember that the blind zone in an SUV or pickup can be especially large. Use extreme care.
- Talk to other parents in the neighborhood about backover incidents and ask them to teach their children not to play in or around any vehicle or driveway.
In an ACTS-commissioned survey of 900 parents of children 12 and under in 2007, about 20 percent said parents no longer hold children's hands in parking lots once they are 8; more than 85 percent said parents need to do more to protect kids; more than a third said it was "somewhat likely" that a child could be hit in a driveway in their neighborhood.
"Our research shows that most parents do a pretty good job of supervising their children," said Haseltine. Still, he says, "Parents and caregivers need to be vigilant and actively supervise children, particularly when they are in or around a motor vehicle."
For more information on the survey and tips to keep your kids safe in and around cars, go to SafetyFeature.org.