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Making power windows safer

Advocacy groups say deaths and injuries can be prevented if automakers install switches that can't be triggered inadvertently.

October 01, 2003|Jeanne Wright | Special to The Times

It's been two years since Damien Anthony, 15, was found dead, his body hanging out of a 1986 Ford Merkur. The Oklahoma teenager was killed when he was entrapped by the power window on the driver's side of the car.

Damien was washing the car at his parents' home when he leaned in through the open window and inadvertently touched a power window switch. With his neck and arm caught by the window, Damien was unable to reach the switch to free himself, according to attorneys for the Anthony family, who sued Ford Motor Co. By the time his father reached him, the boy was dead.

The Anthony family reached an out-of-court settlement with Ford.

"He was our only child. This has ruined our lives. I never expected anything like that to happen," John Anthony said. The notion that someone could be killed by a power window "never would have entered my mind."

Over the last couple of decades, there have been 58 fatalities and hundreds of injuries in the United States because of power windows, safety groups say. A 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.

Concerned about the number of deaths and accidents, Kids and Cars, the Center for Auto Safety and the Consumer Federation of America have petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require automakers to provide safer electric window switches.

The groups are particularly concerned about rocker, or toggle-style, window switches, which are triggered easily by children and close in a hurry. Consumer advocates want automakers to install safety devices so that power windows automatically reverse direction if they come in contact with anything, in addition to installing switches that cannot be triggered unintentionally.

"We are asking them to mandate the safer switches and to look at the auto-reverse equipment," said Janette Fennell, executive director of Kids and Cars in Kansas City, Kan. If such devices became standard equipment, "we could eliminate kids' being killed or injured in this way."

Many Japanese and European vehicles sold in the United States already offer these safety window features. But consumer groups complain that the domestic Big Three automakers offer them in few models.

Some automakers have begun phasing in safer window switches, but they tend to be in the more expensive vehicles sold under the Volvo, Cadillac, Mercedes, Lexus and BMW brands.

Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley said lever-type window switches are being phased in on almost all of the company's Volvo models and most of its Mazda models. The safer switches also will be phased in this year on the Lincoln Navigator and Aviator sport utility vehicles. Ford also offers bounce-back, or auto-reverse, windows as an option on some vehicles, she said.

As for General Motors Corp., less than half its models currently are equipped with the newer pull-up, push-down power window switches. But GM spokesman Jim Schell said the 2004 Malibu and some Cadillac models would have the new window switches.

DaimlerChrysler also is phasing out the old window switches or installing them in the center console, where it would be more difficult for small children to reach them.

But automakers say it's also important that parents supervise their children.

In California, "Kaitlyn's Law" is designed to prevent parents from leaving their children unattended in vehicles. The law authorizes a $100 fine if a parent or other responsible adult leaves a child 6 or younger alone in a vehicle with the engine running or with keys in the ignition.

Write to Jeanne Wright in care of Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: jeanrite@aol.com.

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