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Ann Job experiences the terror of being locked in a car trunk.

As the lid closed and the sunshine-filled world outside suddenly disappeared, I was plunged in such a hot, tight darkness I immediately panicked.

Few victims, intense fear

I can still only imagine the terror that victims feel—drivers who are locked into trunks during carjackings and children who, perhaps playing “hide and go seek” or simply exploring, become trapped.

The numbers of deaths—typically from heat stroke, hypothermia or suffocation—aren't large, to be sure. In the last decade, an average of two children per year have died in the United States while being trapped in a car trunk.

And no one is really sure exactly how many Americans—adults and children—are locked into trunks and live to tell about it. Janette Fennell of the Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition (T.R.U.N.C.) in San Francisco scoured news reports and legal proceedings in recent years to come up with a tally of 1,175. Fennell, a robbery victim who was locked in the trunk of her car with her husband in 1995, said "it was hard for me to believe no one has ever studied trunk entrapment until I did."

In part because of Fennell, automakers are stepping up to make trunks safer. And the federal government's own Trunk Entrapment panel, which studied the issue in 1998-99 and included Fennell, urged that trunk releases be mandatory on all new cars that have trunks by January 1, 2001. The panel asked auto companies to voluntarily develop trunk release kits that can be retrofitted on older model vehicles.

GM kit first in the industry

Some car companies aren't dawdling. In March 1999, General Motors Corp. began offering a $50, dealer-installed trunk-release kit for all new Saturn cars and most other new GM cars sold in the United States and Canada. It's also available as a retrofit for Saturns and most GM cars dating to the 1990 model year.

Saying it was especially sensitized when 11 children died in car trunks in the searing heat of summer 1998, GM developed a trunk latch system which provides a release handle that opens the trunk from the inside. In addition, it doesn't let the trunk lock unless a child-proof mechanism is activated first. An additional element is a bungee-type cord that can be used to prevent children from playing with fold-down rear seatbacks.

GM didn't stop there. By 2002 and starting with the 2000 Chevrolet Impala, the company will install a standard sensor system in its cars that will detect by body temperature and motion whether someone is trapped in the trunk. If so, the system will automatically pop open the trunk after two minutes—leaving enough time, it's hoped, for criminals to have departed.

Ford Motor Co. announced it will add a trunk-release cable that lets the trunk lid open from the inside. It debuts as standard equipment during the 2000 model year on all Ford, Lincoln and Mercury cars sold in the United States and Canada.

Mazda North American Operations, owned by Ford, is also incorporating this safety feature during the 2000 model year on new models, spokesman Brian Betz told MSN Autos.

In summer 1999, DaimlerChrysler will introduce an available retrofit kit, costing around $50, for most 1999 model Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth cars with trunks.

Subaru says it will offer retrofit kits for 1995-2000 sedans starting in August 2000. The price will be "nominal," according to Subaru. The automaker will also install inside trunk releases on new 2000 sedans by December 2000.

Nissan North America, Inc. is making a trunk release retrofit kit available in late 1999 for 1990 model year and later Nissan and Infiniti cars. A Nissan spokesman said the company did not know how much it will cost.

Children especially at risk

The best way to keep children safe, of course, is to make sure they are not left unsupervised in or near a vehicle. Teach them not to play in or around cars; keep the doors and trunk of your car locked; and don't leave car keys within their reach.

Trunks pose a special hazard for youngsters because once inside a car trunk, they may not be able to escape on their own, even if they entered through the interior, perhaps through a fold-down rear seat.

Compounding the problem is the fact that trapped children are not visible to passersby who might otherwise offer help.

Show children the new mechanisms?

But some parents wondered whether they should show their children how to operate the new trunk-release mechanisms. They said they feared that doing so would encourage youngsters to play in trunks.

GM spokesman Kyle Johnson told MSN Autos that GM isn't telling parents to show children the releases because “children are highly unreliable” in what they remember and how they behave. “We are targeting our communications toward parents (to raise their awareness),” he said, adding the car company and its dealers—in conjunction with the National Safe Kids Campaign—have been distributing brochures on child-car safety.

GM, Ford systems differ

GM said it's subsidizing the cost of its system. Ford said it is not charging extra for the trunk release. But Ford's system is not available as a retrofit for older model Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles.

The two automaker systems differ slightly in design, too. Ford uses a T-shaped handle coated with a phosphorescent material that glows in the dark, even after being exposed to just a bit of light. The handle connects to a cable that unlatches the trunk.

GM's trunk escape release is an ordinary-looking, lever-type door handle that the company said tested well with children aged 3 to 7. It's illuminated for about an hour by two light-emitting diodes that draw power from the car's battery. GM says the power draw is not enough to drain the battery, however.

Studies continue

There are no government requirements for trunk releases. Auto companies, including Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., are studying whether to add trunk releases to their vehicles.

Toyota's Michael Love, national regulatory affairs manager, said his company is “investigating both retrofit kits for existing vehicles and possible original equipment solutions for new vehicles.”

Vehicles covered

Trunk release kits are offered for all GM vehicles from the 1990-2000 model year except the following: 1990-91 Buick Reatta; 2000 Buick LeSabre; 1990-93 Cadillac Allante and Fleetwood Brougham; 1997-99 Cadillac Seville; 1990-96 Chevrolet Beretta; 1990 Chevrolet Caprice; 1990-91 Chevrolet Cavalier; 1990-99 Chevrolet Metro and Prizm; 1998-99 Chevrolet Corvette; 2000 Oldsmobile Aurora; 1990-92 Oldsmobile Toronado and Trofeo; 2000 Pontiac Bonneville; 1990-91 Pontiac Sunbird; 1990-93 Pontiac Lemans.

Over the course of the 2000 model year, Ford is integrating its trunk-release mechanism into Ford, Lincoln, Mercury and Mazda branded vehicles that have trunks.

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