Indiana Car-Trunk Deaths Renew Child-Safety Fears, Recall Request

Deaths of stepbrothers prompt renewed demand for recall of older GM models.

June 21, 2011, 2:28 PM

June 22, 2011 -- Two young boys, step-brothers, ages 2 and 4, died in New Carlisle, Ind., last week after being trapped in the trunk of their family's 2000 Chevy Malibu.

Police are uncertain how they got there but, a national child safety organization, is again calling on General Motors Corp. to recall all vehicles with trunks from model years 2000 and 2001, and retrofit them with internal trunk releases.

The advocacy group made a similar appeal in 2009 when an Arkansas boy, 5, and his sister, 4, died in the same model vehicle in 2009 after becoming trapped in the trunk of a 2000 Malibu. Autopsies show that Friday's deaths were a result of hyperthermia, caused by the trunks exceedingly hot temperatures.

Indeed, a recent study conducted by KidsandCars found that 46 children have died in unintentional trunk entrapments since 1992. The study noted that 21 of the 46 deaths were in GM vehicles.

After the Arkansas deaths, the organization called on GM, the maker of the Chevy Malibu, to recall its 2000-2001 vehicles. In light of last week's deaths, it again urged GM to take action in an effort to prevent additional tragedies.

"All of the children died in the exact same vehicle, but if the trunk release had been in there, I can almost guarantee those kids would still be alive," Janette Fennell, founder and president of the group, said.

Fennel blazed the trail for government-mandated, emergency trunk safety latches in 1996 after she and her husband were kidnapped and locked in the trunk of their own car. "The police officer said to me, 'It never ends like this. People don't usually walk away.'"

As noted in a 1979 internal report issued by GM in response to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which Fennell provided to ABC News, the cost of installing an internal trunk release would have been three cents per car. GM installed the device in its vehicles more than 20 years later after passage of legislation requiring them on cars produced after 2001.

GM had previously said it would "equip most of its four-door family cars with an infrared sensing device that automatically unlocks the trunk if anyone is trapped inside," the Associated Press reported in 1999.

GM said that based on its studies, children ages 3 to 7 successfully found the internal trunk release handle on their own and escaped only about half the time, so it "decided to use the infrared technology to create an automatic system to help kids."

GM told ABC News, however, that the technology was never made available to consumers. GM also promised that an "automatic trunk-opening feature will be standard on the Chevrolet Impala next year [2000] and will be phased in on most of GM's four-door cars by 2002," according to the Associated Press.

But GM has since said that it was never installed.

"As with all new safety features, General Motors researched and tested a number of different approaches, including some advanced technologies, to address the need for an interior trunk release," GM spokeswoman Carolyn Markey said.

"Ultimately, it was decided to implement an interior release handle in accordance with the National Traffic Safety Administrations Industry Standard."

While GM offered retrofit kits, at a $50 cost to the consumer, in 1999, it didn't begin automatically installing the devices in vehicles until the 2002 car models. By comparison, Ford Motor Co. began to automatically phase in internal trunk releases in its cars beginning in 1999, completing close to the entire process by February 2000.

Child Safety a Priority for GM

In an emailed statement to ABC News, GM said, "Keeping children safe in and around vehicles is a priority for General Motors."

The automaker added that it has been working for years to educate consumers on the subject. "Increasing awareness and education is critical since millions of vehicles of varying makes and models without trunk latches are still in the marketplace," the company said.

GM said there are no plans for a recall.

Although cars produced after 2001 are required to have an internal trunk release, many cars before that date are not equipped with the potentially lifesaving tool. KidsandCars recommends a $9.99 home-installed device called Easy Out Trunk Release Kit that glows in the dark so that anyone trapped inside can easily locate the release lever.

In addition to installing internal trunk release kits, KidsAndCars offers these safety tips to keep children safe around vehicles:

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