WASHINGTON -- Ten months after five Utah girls died trapped in a car trunk, a national panel on Tuesday called for the federal government to require internal trunk releases on all new cars beginning with year 2001 models.
But most major carmakers said they aren't waiting to be told what to do. They have already a plan to include such internal latches (which can be seen in the dark) in new cars, and many are selling kits to retrofit older models.General Motors, which made the Saturn car that was involved in the August 1998 Utah tragedy, even announced it has developed an infrared device that can sense body heat and movement and will automatically open a trunk when someone is trapped inside.
Dr. Heather Paul, chairwoman of the Expert Panel on Trunk Entrapment, formed at the request of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, also gave credit for such relatively quick action to the parents of the Utah children who were killed.
"They are the reason we are here," she said at a press conference in the National Press Club. "They pushed for this."
Paul C. Smith, one of those parents, was there to urge consumers to take advantage of the new safety devices. His daughters Audrey Cleo, 2, and Jaesha Lyn, 4, were killed along with their cousins Alisha Richardson, 6, and Ashley Marie Richardson, 3, and a neighborhood friend, McKell Shae Ann Hedden, 5.
The girls' bodies were discovered in the trunk of the Smiths' family car on a sweltering August day when temperatures climbed into the 90s. A medical examiner said the children died of heat exposure after the internal temperature of the trunk exceeded 100 degrees.
"The panel has done its job, and auto manufacturers have done their job," Smith told the Deseret News. "Now it's up to the public to get retrofit kits for older cars. Safety devices won't benefit anyone if they are not used."
Smith and his wife, Dixie, lost what was then their only two children in the accident. But they traveled with a new baby, 2-month-old Hunter, to Washington.
"We're pleased at the response of the industry and everyone," he said. "We never want to see anything like this happen again -- never."
He also gave parents and others another safety tip. "Lock your cars. We used to say we locked cars to keep away criminals. Now it's important to lock your car to protect the ones you love the most -- your children" from the danger of dying from summer heat.
Eleven children died nationally last summer while trapped in trunks. The panel said such children usually die of hyperthermia when the inside temperatures rise as high as 170 degrees. Paul said the panel found hundreds of such cases in recent years.
While Paul said most auto manufacturers are voluntarily taking steps to include internal trunk release systems, her panel decided to call for a federal rule requiring it anyway to ensure that all manufacturers provide them.
Manufacturers saying they will have such latches available on either year 2000 or 2001 models are: Ford, General Motors, Hyundai, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota and Volvo. Most other manufacturers said they are investigating such latches.
Also several manufacturers are now selling (or soon will sell) retrofit kits to add internal release mechanisms to older cars. They include BMW, DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, Ford, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Subaru.
General Motors said its infrared system will be made standard equipment midyear on the model year 2000 Impala.
"Our behavioral research showed that some children become quite passive and may not even try to get out if they are entrapped in trunks," said Gary White, vehicle line executive for the Chevrolet Impala and Monte Carlo.
"Our electronic system senses both movement and temperature and will open the car trunk if it detects a temperature differential, such as the heat signature of mammals, and motion. The system is active only when the car's transmission is in 'park.' "
The expert panel also called for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to establish a national data system to track how often trunk entrapment occurs.
And it called for the government and manufacturers to work together to develop designs and performance standards for trunk safety features.
Much of the work began after the parents of the five Utah children who died contacted Saturn and General Motors about their concerns, and GM decided to work with the National SAFE KIDS Campaign to help raise public awareness about trunk entrapment.