Report to Congress

Committee on Commerce of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Motor Vehicle Trunk Entrapment

February 2000

U.S. Department of Transportation

 


TABLE OF CONTENTS

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
CHAPTER 1    INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER 2    UNDERSTANDING THE PROBLEM SIZE
CHAPTER 3    UNDERSTANDING THE PROBLEM
CHAPTER 4    EXPERT PANEL ON TRUNK ENTRAPMENT
CHAPTER 5    NHTSA'S ACTION REGARDING THE PANEL'S RECOMMENDATIONS
APPENDIX A    TRUNK ENTRAPMENT REPORT, JUNE 3, 1999
APPENDIX B    EXPERT PANEL ON TRUNK ENTRAPMENT RECOMMENDATIONS, JUNE 1999
APPENDIX C    NOTICE OF PROPOSED RULEMAKING

 


 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

In June 1998, through the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, Congress directed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to study the benefits of a regulation to require the installation in a motor vehicle of an interior device to release the trunk lid. The safety hazard to be mitigated by an interior trunk release device is "motor vehicle trunk entrapment," i.e., providing a means to allow trunk entrapment victims to escape from the trunk of a motor vehicle.

In September 1998, NHTSA began to gather information on the issue of trunk entrapment. It was determined that to develop an effective solution, especially for children, it is necessary to understand the cognitive and behavior abilities of young children who are frightened and in the dark. Other issues include trunk release location and possible power requirements to illuminate the trunk release mechanism. After considering a broad array of issues associated with motor vehicle trunk entrapment, NHTSA decided that instead of having the government spend substantial time and resources developing a solution on its own, a more effective way of quickly addressing and understanding the issue might be to bring business, government and civic leaders, medical and engineering researchers, safety advocates, and other organizations together to work to prevent trunk entrapments.

In November 1998, NHTSA asked Dr. Heather Paul of the National Safe Kids Campaign to chair an Expert Panel for the purpose of developing recommendations and strategies for addressing the issue of deaths and injuries resulting from motor vehicle trunk entrapment. The panel studied a range of possible solutions including interior trunk latches and warnings or other means to prevent entrapments. The group assessed the need for education programs to alert parents and children to the risk of trunk entrapment.

In June 1999 the Panel, composed of industry, safety advocates, medical experts, law enforcement, and other relevant groups, reached consensus on recommendations related to data collection, education, engineering and evaluation. The Panel also recommended that NHTSA require all new vehicles with trunks to be equipped with a release latch inside the trunk compartment beginning January 1, 2001. The intended purpose is to give children and others who find themselves trapped inside a car trunk a chance to get out of the trunk alive. NHTSA concurs with the Panel's recommendations and among other things, published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in the Federal Register on December 17,1999. [See Appendix C for the NPRM].

REPORT TO CONGRESS
Committee on Commerce of the House of Representatives and
the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate


 

CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION

On June 9,1998, through the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, Congress directed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to:

STUDY - The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shall conduct a study of the benefits to motor vehicle drivers of a regulation to require the installation in a motor vehicle of an interior device to release the trunk lid. Not later than 18 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administration shall submit a report on the results of the study to the Committee on Commerce of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate.

This report responds to the congressional directions to study the benefits of a regulation to require the installation of an interior device to release the trunk lid. NHTSA has concluded that the rationale associated with a requirement for an interior trunk release device is the safety hazard of motor vehicle trunk entrapment, i.e., providing a means to allow trunk entrapment victims to escape from the trunk of a motor vehicle. The report provides a comprehensive summary of the activities conducted in support of the study.


 

CHAPTER 2 UNDERSTANDING THE PROBLEM SIZE

In September 1998, NHTSA began to gather information on the issue of trunk entrapment. In an attempt to determine the problem size and gather data on the annual number of incidents (including incidents of death and injury) involving individuals who are locked in the trunk of an automobile, NHTSA examined all of its motor-vehicle-related databases and data collection systems, and contacted four other federal agencies.

NHTSA has an extensive motor vehicle traffic data collection system, which includes its Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and its National Automotive Sampling System/General Estimates System (GES). Both systems were designed and developed by NHTSA's National Center for Statistics and Analysis (NCSA) to provide an overall measure of highway safety, to help identify traffic safety problems, to suggest solutions, and to help provide an objective basis on which to evaluate the effectiveness of motor vehicle safety standards and highway safety initiatives. Data from these systems are used to answer requests for information from the international and national highway traffic safety communities, including state and local governments, the Congress, Federal agencies, research organizations, industry, the media, private citizens, and the NHTSA engineering and management staff.

To be included in the FARS database, a motor vehicle must be involved in a crash while traveling on a trafficway customarily open to the public, and must result in the death of an occupant of a vehicle or non-motorist within 30 days of the crash. To be eligible for the GES sampling data base, a police report must be completed for the crash, and the crash must involve at least one motor vehicle traveling on a trafficway and result in property damage, injury, or death.

Neither of these databases has any incidents of trunk entrapment. By restricting the attention of FARS and the GES to police-reports involving a crash on a trafficway customarily open to the public, these NHTSA databases are not a surveillance system of motor vehicle trunk entrapments or any other motor vehicle related hazard that is not a result of a collision on the publicway. Thus, it is not surprising that neither of these databases has any incidents of trunk entrapments.

NHTSA also examined its Hotline Complaint data file which consists of a descriptive listing of vehicle and equipment problems reported by consumers. The complaint database includes statements made by consumers in letters and/or vehicle owner questionnaires which were forwarded to the agency. This database was searched for complaints regarding the trunk lid and door assembly, and locks and latches. The period examined was from January 1989 to August 1998. During that period NHTSA received 35 complaints regarding trunk lids failing to properly remain open or inadvertently closing. The file records contained one case involving two young children who died after apparently climbing into the trunk of a motor vehicle during a hot day in July 1993. The children apparently closed the trunk lid and both children, ages 3 and 5, died as a result of hyperthermia/asphyxiation.

Other Federal databases were also lacking in information on non-crash vehicles related events. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has a number of data files that have been helpful to NHTSA over the years. The best data source for NHTSA has been CPSC's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS). NEISS is a nationally representative sample of product-associated injuries treated in 91 of the Nation's 6,127 hospital emergency rooms. However, one shortcoming of the NEISS data for NHTSA's purposes is that NEISS does not routinely collect data about injuries associated with motor vehicles. When NEISS collects data about motor vehicle-related injuries, it is the result of an agreement between NHTSA and CPSC and limited to particular types of motor vehicle-related injuries. There was no such interagency agreement to gather data on injuries from trunk entrapment.

NHTSA contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to obtain FBI statistical data concerning the number of incidents that occur annually involving individuals who are locked in the trunk of an automobile as a result of some type of criminal activity such as car-jacking, kidnaping, robbery, abduction, etc. NHTSA was advised that the FBI's database reporting system is not specific enough to link criminal activities such as car-jacking, kidnaping, abduction, etc., with events like motor vehicle trunk entrapments.

NHTSA also contacted the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), with whom it has an agreement involving death certificates. NCHS death certificate information is linked to NHTSA's FARS files for crashes, but there was no link for non-crash deaths.

On October 16, 1998, the American Automobile Manufacturers Association (AAMA) forwarded to NHTSA a letter on the subject of trunk entrapment that enclosed information on an Internet search of trunk entrapment related stories over the past 8 years. The AAMA data contained information on 16 deaths of children in 7 incidents of unintentional entrapment from 1987 through 1998. Twelve cases of intentional entrapment of children in trunks were found for the period 1987 through 1998 (4 deaths). There were 28 cases of intentional entrapment of adults in trunks from 1987 through 1998 (5 deaths).

There are only a few studies and samples of trunk entrapment. On December 4, 1998, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published a paper in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, titled, Fatal Car Entrapment Involving Children -- United States, 1987 - 1998. The source of information for the CDC paper was the LEXIS-NEXIS database. The CDC used the LEXIS-NEXIS database to search for media reports (newspapers, magazines, wire services, and broadcast transcripts) of motor vehicle trunk entrapments involving death(s) of children. The CDC reported that a total of 19 children six years of age or less died in nine incidents of motor vehicle entrapment from 1987 to 1998; an average of approximately 2 child deaths and one incident each year. The cause of death for all children was either hyperthermia (heat stroke) or a combination of hyperthermia and asphyxiation.

On December 15, 1998, NHTSA received a spreadsheet and a brief documentation file from the Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition (TRUNC). TRUNC is an organization whose mission is to make it mandatory for all automobile manufacturers to install a trunk release device inside the trunk of their vehicles. At that time, the TRUNC file included 703 records, reports of trunk entrapments in the United States and Canada, restricted to cases of victims who were alive when they entered the trunk. In the category of unintentional trunk entrapment TRUNC listed 20 fatalities in 10 incidents: 19 children and a 77 year old who was trapped in the trunk while installing speakers. The largest available database on intentional trunk entrapment involving criminal activity resides with TRUNC.

The TRUNC spreadsheet shows 137 fatal incidents of criminal trunk entrapment. The spreadsheet also shows a total of 147 deaths associated with criminal trunk entrapment. Half of all fatal cases are reported to have occurred during the years 1991 through 1998.

A NHTSA report which includes a detailed examination of the available statistics on the number of individuals who died as a result of inadvertently locking themselves in the trunk of a motor vehicle and on the number of incidents of individuals being intentionally locked in a motor vehicle trunk is provided herein this report as Appendix A, Trunk Entrapment Report, June 3, 1999.


 

CHAPTER 3 UNDERSTANDING THE PROBLEM

In general, it appears that the victims of trunk entrapment include two distinct categories: (1) people who are intentionally locked in a motor vehicle trunk by criminals and (2) children who inadvertently lock themselves in the trunk. In order to design an effective solution especially for children it is necessary to understand the cognitive and behavior abilities of young children who are frightened and in the dark. Other issues include trunk release location and possible power requirements to illuminate the trunk release mechanism. Any solution that would benefit children would also benefit adults.

During the review of the available data on trunk entrapment NHTSA discovered that the method of trunk entry varied for the children who inadvertently locked themselves in the trunk, i.e., some used keys to open the trunk, while others got into the trunk without using the key-either a driver's side trunk release lever or a manual release on the trunk itself was present. Trunk entrapment also is possible by entering through the opening of fold-down rear seat backs that latch when subsequently closed. In one case the trunk was left open. In some cases the method of trunk entry could not be determined. The CDC paper reported that at least 15 children died during an eleven year period in cars parked either at their house or at a relative's house. In the trunk entrapment deaths reported by the CDC the outside temperature varied from 85F (29.4C) to 106F (41.1C). The amount of time that the involved children were missing varied from 1 hour to 8 hours. There was one incident where information on the amount of time missing was not available. The cause of death for all children was either hyperthermia (heat stroke) or a combination of hyperthermia and asphyxiation.

Heatstroke (hyperthermia) is a medical emergency and is often fatal despite medical care. Heatstroke is usually designated when the rectal or core temperature reaches 105F (40.6 C). The CDC paper indicated that cars parked in direct sunlight can reach internal temperatures up to 131F - 172 F(55C - 78C) when the outside temperatures are 80F - 100F (27C - 38C). Cars that are parked in direct sunlight and that are poorly ventilated also reach higher temperatures more rapidly than cars that are parked in the shade or that have windows completely opened. Most temperature increases inside cars occur during the first 15 minutes of being left in the sun.

The major mechanism for heat loss by the body in high ambient temperature is evaporation. This mechanism is quickly defeated in the rising humidity of closed car trunks. Younger children are more sensitive to heat than older children or adults and are at greater risk for heatstroke. The combination of high temperature, humidity, and poor ventilation all contribute to the extreme danger of car trunks.


 

CHAPTER 4 EXPERT PANEL ON TRUNK ENTRAPMENT

Considering the broad array of issues associated with motor vehicle trunk entrapment, NHTSA decided that instead of having the government spend substantial time and resources developing a solution on its own, a more effective way of quickly addressing and understanding the issue might be to bring business, government and civic leaders, medical and engineering researchers, safety advocates, and other organizations together to work to prevent trunk entrapments. To accomplish this, NHTSA decided to ask that an independent organization volunteer to convene an independent panel of experts. The Expert Panel on Trunk Entrapment would consist of representatives from various industries, including vehicle manufacturers, law enforcement groups, experts in child psychology and behavior, child safety advocates, the medical community, other Federal government agencies, and others interested entities.

In November 1998, Dr. Ricardo Martinez, former Administrator of NHTSA, asked Dr. Heather Paul of the National Safe Kids Campaign to chair, establish, and convene an Expert Panel for the purpose of developing recommendations and strategies for addressing the issue of deaths and injuries resulting from motor vehicle trunk entrapment.

Among other things, the panel studied a range of possible solutions including interior trunk latches and warnings or other means to prevent entrapments. The group assessed the need for education programs to alert parents and children to the risk of trunk entrapment.

The Expert Panel on Trunk Entrapment met three times over a period of four months. At the conclusion of the third Panel meeting, the Panel reached consensus on recommendations related to data collection, education, engineering and evaluation. The panel also voted for an enactment recommendation. With better education related to car safety and crime prevention, promotion of retrofit kits, and the installation of internal trunk release in all new motor vehicles, the panel hopes to accomplish its mission of avoiding any more deaths and injuries from trunk entrapments. A list of Panel members including details regarding the recommendations is provided, herein, this report in Appendix B, Expert Panel on Trunk Entrapment Recommendations, June 1999.

In summary, the Panel's recommendations were as follows:

  • Data Collection

The Panel recommendations are that NHTSA should work with others to establish a national data system designed to measure the frequency and consequence of trunk entrapment, and that NHTSA should seek, and Congress should provide, adequate resources to establish and maintain this national data system.

  • Education

The Panel recommendations are that vehicle manufacturers should include information on trunk safety in the vehicle owner's manuals, warning labels and/or safety hang tags for all cars with trunks, and the public and private organizations should develop and disseminate new material and augment existing material to include trunk entrapment prevention and other safety measures regarding children and adults in and around cars.

  • Engineering

The Panel recommendations are: (1) automobile manufacturers should voluntarily develop trunk safety retrofit kits, including internal trunk release mechanisms, by summer 2000 for as many earlier model vehicles as feasible, (2) retrofit kits should be marketed, promoted and made available to the public at reduced cost or free of charge, (3) all automobile manufacturers should design and install trunk safety features, including internal trunk release mechanisms, into all new vehicles by January 1, 2001, (4) all new designs and retrofit kits should be based upon the cognitive and physical abilities of young children, and (5) the Society of Automotive Engineers should begin work to develop a recommended practice for the design and performance of trunk safety features, including internal trunk release mechanisms.

  • Enactment

The Panel concluded a government standard is needed to hold the industry accountable for taking action, yet allow manufacturers the freedom to decide upon optimal design solutions. The panel's recommendation is that NHTSA should issue a standard requiring vehicles to be equipped with internal trunk release mechanisms.

  • Evaluation

The Panel recommended that it reconvene by December 2000 to assess the progress made with respect to its recommendations.


 

CHAPTER 5 NHTSA'S ACTION REGARDING THE PANEL'S
RECOMMENDATIONS

NHTSA concurs with the recommendations of the Expert Panel and is working with the National Center for Health Statistics to establish a national data system for some non-crash-related motor vehicle deaths including trunk entrapment. NHTSA's FY 2001 budget request for Safety Performance Standards asks for $200,000 to establish and maintain such a data system. Regarding the Panel's recommendation with respect to an educational campaign, NHTSA, in partnership with the American Automobile Association (AAA) and other national safety organizations and health communities, has established programs to disseminate child safety and trunks information to the public and parents of young children. Concerning the recommendation for enactment of a government standard, NHTSA published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register on December 17, 1999. The notice proposed a requirement that all new vehicles with trunks come equipped with a release latch inside the trunk compartment beginning January 1, 2001. A copy of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is provided, herein, this report as Appendix C.

 


NOTE: Appendices are available at DOT Docket No. NHTSA-1999-5063