The Long Road to Protecting Kids

Chris Jensen
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Thursday, September 30, 2004

After one of the most amazing delays in the history of auto safety, the federal government has finally decided to require automakers to make it harder for small children to kill themselves by accidentally raising power windows.

Starting in October 2008, all light- passenger vehicles sold in the United States must have power-window switches that are "resistant to accidental activation."

The regulation is designed to make it harder for children to stick their heads or arms out the window and then accidentally lean on a switch that raises the window, trapping them.

Options for meeting the regulation include switches that are recessed or must be pulled up to raise the window, a feature already found on many European vehicles.

The rule is somewhat odd for two reasons.

First, in the big, ugly picture of traffic fatalities there are relatively few victims of this problem, although it is hard to minimize the death of even one child.

Second, it has taken so long for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to act, even by the most glacial standards.

In 1995, lawyer Michael Garth Moore from Hilliard, Ohio, asked NHTSA to require automakers to make safer switches.

Moore said he became concerned while representing Larry Householder, whose 3-year-old daughter, Kaley, was killed in 1992 when she acci dentally raised the window in a mini van.

Householder went on to become Ohio's speaker of the House.

NHTSA said it would consider a rule to make the switches safer and it wasn't kidding. The agency considered and considered and considered, and about nine years passed before a rule was adopted.

Portraying the kind of humorous understatement that is unfortunately all too rare in federal agencies, a NHTSA document acknowledges "there has been a longer than usual interval" between the time the agency agreed to consider a new rule and its enacting a new rule.

"It was unconscionable," Moore said in a recent interview. Moore said he wasn't asking for the adoption of some expensive, new technology. Safer window switches already were available. It was only a matter of forcing automakers to use them.

I can think of a couple of explanations for such a dismaying delay.

One is that the auto industry resisted the regulation, saying there wasn't any infor mation demonstrating it was needed. Even Mercedes-Benz, a company that has launched some of the world's best safety technology, argued the rule could not be justified.

Perhaps NHTSA just lacked the energy or gumption to take on such a powerful lobby.

Another possibility is that over those years NHTSA was facing plenty of safety issues that affected many more people. The resources it needed were limited while the federal government was busy frittering away billions on things like goofy space explorations.

Maybe the delay was an unfortunate co-mingling of the two.

NHTSA's position is that the agency was involved in major issues such as the Firestone tire failures that affected far more lives.

Whatever the reason during that delay, children were dying.

Robert Teague.

Carolyn Walker-Himes.

Kaylee Everhart.

Zoie Gates.

Abigail Alvarez.

And too many others.

An analysis by the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., found that at least 19 children died in accidents involving power windows between 1995, when Moore filed his petition, and April 2003.

Ten of those have died since 2000.

In the 23 years before Moore filed his request, the Center for Auto Safety found only 13 deaths. The Center suggests no doubt with merit that the death rate increased as power windows became more common.

That doesn't count injuries. A 1997 NHTSA study estimated more than 400 people children and adults were injured each year by accidents involving power windows.

The safety agency's pace apparently accelerated in 2003 after several consumer groups, including the Center for Auto Safety, Public Citizen and Kids and Cars asked NHTSA to do something and began holding news conferences about the is sue.

Then Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican, got interested and whatever else you think about politicians, senators tend to be intense, motivational factors for bureaucracies.

NHTSA says the reporting of deaths and injuries to the agency has been spotty at best, but it is clear that power windows have caused "a small but persistent number of injuries and fatalities."

It estimated the new regulation will save at least one death and prevent one serious injury each year. But the agency also noted that was a conservative estimate because of inconsistent reporting of deaths and injuries.

The Center for Auto Safety and its allies contend the benefits will be greater, particularly as the number of vehicles with power windows increases.

But although many automakers are already using improved switches, the industry argued that it needed three to four years to carry out the new regulation; hence the 2008 deadline. Of course, the Center for Auto Safety and its companions are dismayed that the agency is granting the automakers so much time.

By the time the safer switches are mandatory, it will have been about 13 years since Moore filed his request.

Meanwhile, there is plenty parents can do to keep their children safe.

Buy vehicles with safer switches that must be pulled up to close the window.

Don't allow children to play in cars or leave them alone in cars even for a few minutes.

Take advantage of the "lockout" buttons found on many vehicles that allow only the driver to operate windows.

And, should a child become stuck in a window, remember that it will be extremely difficult to force the glass down. Turn on the ignition and use the button to lower the window.

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