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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Parents and Auto Makers At Odds Over Bills to Protect Children

Powerful Manufacturers Alliance Thwarts and Stalls New Bills to Stop Tragic Motor Vehicle Back-overs and Power Window Suffocations

Two new bills have been introduced that would authorize new technology and new standards designed to stop children from dying in such accidents as being struck by a backing vehicle or suffocated by a power window. It's the most controversial debate in vehicle safety, but one that's elicited more tears than action so far.

Adriann Nelson’s year-old son was killed in 2004 when a relative backed over him in an SUV at the Nelson home. At her fourth lobbying trip to Capitol Hill, she remarked, "If you think it's easy for us to walk around Congress with pictures of our dead children, you're wrong."

Unfortunately, US auto manufacturers have fought the parents' proposals to a virtual standstill. Their argument is that the technology that might be required would cost hundreds of millions of dollars while saving few lives, if any. Instead, they direct attention to voluntary improvements, such as transmissions that can't be accidentally pulled out of park.

The auto industry insists that the sensors and cameras on the back of a vehicle are no substitute for human eyes and ears, thereby raising the question of how much responsibility the parents should shoulder.

In a letter to lawmakers, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said, "The most effective way to help prevent backing non-crash incidents is to urge the driver to check around the vehicle before backing."

Back-overs most frequent

Despite the auto industry's attempt to stop the bills, parents and safety experts say the Kids and Cars bills could save hundreds of children a year at just a small cost to manufacturers and consumers. The Kids and Cars organization reports that the death toll from these kinds of accidents this year alone was 167 mostly preschool-age children.

Parents won a legislative battle against automakers this September, when Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, head of the Senate Commerce Committee, pointed out that the bill could be considered after Election Day.

Sharing the podium with the Nelsons was Britt Gates, and whose daughter Zoie died when she suffocated while kneeling on a power window switch. "Eight dollars would have saved Zoie's life," she lamented. "What's the price tag for your kids?"

The bills deal with three frequent ways children get hurt in automobiles: by shifting the vehicle out of park, getting trapped by power windows and being backed over by a moving vehicle. Back-overs appear to be the most prevalent and the most deadly, in part due to the growing number of large trucks, SUVs and vans.

The number for how many people are injured or killed in such accidents is unknown. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration collects data on injuries only from accidents on roads and highways, not parking lots and driveways.

A Kansas activist named Janette Fennell has been lobbying Congress for years to demand trunk release latches in cars after she was carjacked. Over the past few years, she has been compiling data from news reports and other sources. Her count shows that last year, 224 children under 15 years of age died in all types of non-traffic accidents, the equivalent of 13% of deaths of children in crashes. According to Fennell, subsequent efforts to count untracked vehicle safety problems end up understating their scale.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 2,500 children under 14 are brought to emergency rooms every year for back-over injuries, and 50% of those children are younger than 4.

Backing-up blind spots can be huge

The Spot the Tot campaign, sponsored by General Motors Corp., urges parents to walk around their vehicle before entering it, as well as holding a child's hand when around cars and trucks, and generally being aware of children when driving.

GM lent a white Chevrolet Suburban for a demonstration of how many children could fit into the SUV's blind spot. The driver reported he could see eight children behind its rear bumper. There were 23 children behind the SUV.

A mother of six from Utah, Kim Babka, accidentally backed over her 3-year-old son, Jackson, in 2001. The boy survived with minor injuries, but Babka says the trauma from the accident is still fresh. She spoke of her horror, saying, "No family should have to face that crushing guilt. This is preventable."

Nicole Nason, an NHTSA administrator, followed Babka's tale with one of her own, about watching her 2-year-old daughter break free of a relative's grasp and lunge toward her Honda Pilot one morning as she was backing out of her driveway.

"It breaks my heart to hear stories like Kim's, and she's lucky," said Nason. "We see so many people for whom the story ends differently. ... It takes paying attention, and it takes being responsible."

New technology not foolproof

The NHTSA has been grappling for years with the question of technologies that help reduce back-over accidents. By November 30, the agency will finalize a study of such technologies. For example, the agency has proposed that certain models of commercial trucks require mirrors and reverse sensors. "I can't imagine the agony of losing a child," said Nason. "I'm open to looking at any technology that could help."

For years, several auto manufacturers have been offering reverse warning parking sensors, and video cameras that are also meant to improve visibility have been offered as optional equipment in several vehicles such as GM's new full-size SUVs. But there are weaknesses in each system. For example, sensors are often designed to find stationary objects, not small children, and cameras do not function well at night or in bad weather.

The manufacturers' alliance, which is comprised of GM, Toyota, Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG, says that studies show that even with backing-up alert systems designed to warn drivers of objects in a reversing vehicle's path, drivers still hit the objects 75% of the time.

Experts in the industry believe the bills' proposals could result in the NHTSA requiring both cameras and reverse sensors. Last year, NHTSA estimated that rearview cameras cost about $300 per vehicle. As an option, GM offers them for about $200 on its full-size SUVs. At even half that cost, outfitting every vehicle sold would cost the industry over $1 billion. GM said their studies prove that "most undistracted drivers are vigilant and can detect objects when backing."

According to GM spokesman Alan Adler, "The issue isn't technology, it's common sense. In the case of back-overs, if you have young children at home the responsibility does rest primarily with the caregiver or parent."

The Kids and Cars proposals would also overturn an NHTSA decision not to mandate power windows that can sense an obstruction. The agency has determined that the technology would save one child's life per year, but cost up to $800 million. The alliance pointed out that the system could pose a potential safety risk of their own, by not permitting drivers to close a window should a carjacker shove his or her arm into a vehicle.

The Kids and Cars bills proponents dispute NHTSA's estimates on auto-reverse windows and contend that the industry is stalling for perfect technology instead of using what's available today. Sally Greenberg, chief counsel for Consumers Union, said auto manufacturers should accept more responsibility for the problems that the bills address.

"The enlightened way to approach product safety problems is to try and change the design and build the danger out of the product, and not try to change human behavior or blame parents," said Greenberg.

Whenever Gates arranges to meet with lawmakers who oppose the bill, the lawmakers send staff members instead.

"If I can get to senators or representatives directly, I can get a yes," Gates said. "When they meet with parents face-to-face, it's hard to say no."

The National Safety Commission recommends The Driver Education Handbook for Parents as a valuable teaching tool for parents who are concerned with their teen's driving safety and understand the value of quality instruction.

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