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THE SAFETY ZONE | Spotlight

Watching Your Back

The federal government is taking steps to prevent car trunk entrapment, whether at the hands of criminals or by children's accidents. Interior release handles and heat-motion detectors are some of the solutions motor companies are working on.

May 22, 2000|SANDY YANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's the stuff of gangster movies. But officials report that hundreds of victims a year are forced into the trunks of their cars during crimes ranging from carjackings to kidnappings.

This year in Irvine, for example, a 22-year-old college student was placed in the trunk of his car by assailants who set the vehicle on fire, killing the victim. In 1999, two Santa Ana teenagers kidnapped a Lake Forest man, holding him inside the trunk for hours. Police were able to rescue him after a bystander heard his screams for help.

The federal government is taking steps to prevent car trunks from becoming makeshift prisons.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has tentatively decided to require all automobiles sold in the United States to include release levers inside trunks that allow anyone trapped inside to get out.

Ford Motor Co. is the first to add this lever--a T-shaped glow-in-the-dark version--to most of their new models.

General Motors Corp. has made available a lever retrofit kit that can be installed on models dating back to 1990. GM is also working on a heat-motion sensor that will automatically open the trunk if it senses something warm and moving inside.

The effort to win the regulations has been led by a group called TRUNC (Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition).

Interest in Washington to trunk entrapment increased significantly in 1998 when 11 children suffocated inside trunks in incidents across the nation--most while playing around during the hot summer months.

According to data compiled by TRUNC, there were roughly 1,250 cases of trunk entrapment last year--with about 25% ending in death. Though some involved criminal activities, others were simply children who found themselves trapped.

"No one thinks it's going to happen to them," TRUNC founder Janette Fennell said.

Fennell's awareness of the issue comes from experience. Two gunmen once rolled into the garage of her San Francisco home just before it shut. Ramming guns against their heads, the gunmen forced Fennell and her husband into the trunk and drove off in their car, she said. Stopping at an unfamiliar neighborhood, the gunmen opened the trunk, demanded the Fennells' ATM code and closed it again.

Some auto industry officials have question whether safety releases are really a step forward. They fear such releases might encourage criminals to act more violently knowing their victims can escape.

GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan also questioned whether young children could learn how to use the levers.

"We're trying to get the word out there but being careful not to give the kid an idea," Rhadigan said. "We want to approach this the responsible way, not the alarmist way."

Trunk entrapment remains an occasional problem in Orange County. But Irvine Police Lt. Sam Allevato said he sees no downside to the extra precaution.

"This isn't something that happens very frequently, but it's a good idea to have it anyway," Allevato said. "Kids can accidentally lock themselves in, so why not have it?"

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