Woman's Crusade Prompts Better Car Safety

Monday, September 20th 2004, 10:02 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Janette Fennell became an auto safety crusader on the terrible night nearly a decade ago when she and her husband were robbed at gunpoint and forced into the trunk of their car. The Fennells escaped unharmed, and the experience led them to form a group that lobbied successfully to get the government to require release levers in trunks. Her latest victory came this month when the government announced it would require safer power window switches.

``If you really put your heart and soul into it, you can effect change,'' said Fennell, 50, of Leawood, Kan.

For decades, federal regulators had talked about changing power window switches because the designs made it too easy for children to close windows accidentally. Fennell, the president of Kids and Cars, kept pressing the issue.

She collected data from news and police reports, documenting the deaths of 23 children who were strangled by power windows. She lobbied Congress, invited grieving parents to share their stories and even shut vegetables in car windows to demonstrate the force with which windows close.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently said that by 2008, all vehicles must have power window switches that are more difficult to press by accident.

``Janette's persistence is her greatest weapon. She is just unrelenting,'' said Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and a former NHTSA head.

Fennell, who spent nearly 20 years in marketing for Eastman Kodak Co. and Helene Curtis Industries Inc., attributes her success to a mix of sales skills and careful research. When she began her push for trunk levers, Fennell quickly realized she would have to collect data on trunk deaths because the government did not.

Fennell documented the deaths of 260 people in trunk entrapments over 20 years.

``The rule of the land was, if you have no data, there's no problem,'' Fennell said. ``Building this database showed people that there was a problem.''

Fennell was driven by the horrifying night in 1995 when armed kidnappers stuffed her and her husband, Greig, in the trunk of their Lexus and drove off. The couple's 8-month-old son was left behind at their San Francisco home.

After the kidnappers robbed the Fennells and abandoned the car, the couple escaped by digging through the trunk's upholstery and finding the wires that released the trunk. Their son was unharmed.

Six months later, the Fennells formed the Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition. In 2000, federal regulators began requiring that all vehicles come with trunk release latches.

The Fennells' organization eventually merged with a group called Kids 'n Cars, which was founded by a couple whose toddler was run over by a car. Fennell later split off and formed Kids and Cars.

Kids and Cars took in $303,576 in 2003, mostly from private donations, according to GuideStar, which monitors charities.

Safety advocates generally praise Fennell. But some say groups like hers make it difficult for NHTSA to focus on more complex issues such as drunken driving or excessive speed.

``We have to devote our energy where we can save the most amount of lives,'' said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association.

NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said the agency works well with Fennell, but he acknowledged the agency chafes when Congress and others try to set its priorities.

The agency rejected one Fennell effort _ requiring automatically reversing windows _ because they would have cost $50 per vehicle, or hundreds of millions of dollars for the industry.

Fennell plans to keep pushing that idea and also wants automakers to install cameras in the backs of vehicles so drivers can avoid backing over people. She documented 91 such deaths last year.

Automakers have expressed misgivings about the cost of various safety measures and over-regulation by the government. They note they already were installing better window switches on their own when NHTSA came out with the order.

Fennell is sensitive to the criticism but insists automakers must to better.

``I don't want to be outrageous. If every idea was added to a vehicle, it would be a tank and nobody could afford it,'' Fennell said. ``But we as a country keep saying it's all about the kids. We have to protect them.''