In June, 2009, a pair of Arkansas children, 5-year-old Curtis Markley and his 4-year-old sister, Virginia, perished from heat stroke while trapped in the trunk of their parents’ 2000 Chevrolet Malibu.
It wasn’t the last time a child died that way. In the past two months, three more youngsters, two in Indiana and one in Oklahoma, lost their lives after getting trapped in the scorching hot trunks of General Motors cars.
Nearly 10 years after the federal government mandated interior trunk releases in new autos, older cars never equipped with the safety devices continue to kill children drawn by curiosity into a little-known hazard.
This danger has called attention to the track record of GM, which has long boasted of its commitment to prevent trunk entrapment deaths.
A Kansas-based safety group, KidsAndCars.org, says trunk entrapment in older cars has killed at least 22 children since 2002. Eleven of those deaths, including the recent fatalities in Indiana and Oklahoma, have occurred in autos made by GM — a manufacturer that won an award for developing an escape device to install in older cars and enable children who crawl in and get stuck to pop open the trunk.
“Keeping children safe in and around vehicles is a priority for General Motors,” said a company spokeswoman, Carolyn Markey, after the deaths of two Indiana boys in June.
But FairWarning found that a gap has persisted for years between what GM says it is doing about the hazard, and what it actually does.
A spot check turned up the latest example. FairWarning discovered that the $50 kits that the car company still recommends as retrofits for older cars are impossible, or at least very difficult, to buy through GM, its dealers or the auto parts outlets it has suggested.
When first contacted in June, GM’s Markey recommended the company’s retrofit kits for concerned consumers. She said, via e-mail, that the kits are available for most 1990 through 2000 GM cars and can be obtained by calling the company’s toll-free customer service number.
That triggered a telephone odyssey that led only to dead ends.
When FairWarning phoned GM’s toll-free number, the call was put on hold for 20 minutes. The customer service representative finally replied, “GM doesn’t offer any fit for the emergency retrolatch you’re looking for.”
Then the GM representative suggested three auto parts sellers: ACDelco, American Classic Truck Parts and AutoZone. But none of those companies carried the part.
“We only carry antique parts,” said an employee at American Classic.
A few days later, FairWarning called GM’s toll-free number again. This time the GM customer service adviser replied that “we don’t have parts information,” but directed the caller to a local GM dealership.
When the parts manager at the dealership was reached, he said he wasn’t familiar with the kit. After looking into the matter for 25 minutes, he reported that the item had been discontinued almost five years ago, on Dec. 23, 2006.
Confronted by FairWarning with those results, GM’s Markey responded that although “there has not been a demand for the kit,” some remain available at dealerships around the country.
She also suggested that the snafus in locating the kits stemmed from customer service agents who aren’t aware of the item. “We’re working to get the more than 1,000 agents at various call centers up to speed,” Markey said.
The trunk safety issue captured national attention in the summer of 1998 when 11 children died after becoming trapped in the trunks of cars — all of them GM models, according to KidsAndCars.org.
What often happens in these accidents is that a child, perhaps exploring or playing hide-and-seek, pushes down the back seat until it lies flat, creating a passageway into the trunk. After crawling through, the child kicks the seat back upright and unwittingly gets locked inside. In the summer heat, entrapment can be particularly dangerous for children, because they are more prone than adults to rapid increases in body temperature.
Soon after the tragedies in the summer of 1998, however, there was hope the major car companies would correct the safety flaw.
In December, 1998, both GM and its chief domestic rival, Ford Motor Co., told The Associated Pressthat they soon would offer trunk latch releases that children could operate. While Ford didn’t provide further details, GM said its solution would be an optional trunk safety system costing $50 that would be offered by its 8,000-plus dealerships.
Ford pushed ahead. It installed glow-in-the-dark inside safety releases in all of its car trunks beginning with the 2000 model year.
GM, for its part, went on to win a corporate citizenship award, accepted by then-Vice Chairman Harry J. Pearce, from Parents Magazine in 1999 for the design of its retrofit kit. Pearce told the magazine that GM “felt a special obligation to do something” following the 11 child fatalities in trunks the previous summer.
Later, in April, 2001, GM issued a news release headlined, “GM Leads Effort to Help Protect Children from Harm.” It proclaimed that the trunk releases were available as a dealer-installed option, and that they could be used in most GM family cars dating back to 1990.
Yet GM wasn’t delivering on its promise, according to KidsAndCars.org. After the company’s retrofits were supposed to be made available in March, 1999, as well as in 2000, “We did spot checks at GM dealerships all over the country. In almost every case, they had no idea these existed or were even willing to take the time to find out,” said Janette Fennell, the founder and president of KidsAndCars.org.
(A $10 trunk release retrofit kit known as “Quick Out,” which Consumers Reports magazine found “easy to install and effective,” is sold by KidsAndCars.org and also is available through http://www.aablelocksmiths.com
What’s more, GM never has offered to install safety latches free of charge in older cars. And GM never launched a publicity campaign over the past decade to alert consumers of the trunk hazard and to urge them to fix their cars.
As for installing interior trunk releases in new cars, GM did that on many of its 2001 models, but didn’t provide the feature throughout its product line until all U.S. automakers were required to do so for the next model year.
Infuriated by the divide between GM’s words and deeds, Fennell has renewed her call for the company to act.
She has pleaded for GM to recall its 2000 and 2001 model year cars to install internal trunk releases in autos that lack them.
Fennell, who launched KidsAndCars.org after surviving a 1995 kidnapping during which she was trapped in a trunk, isn’t getting her hopes up that GM will take action. As she put it, GM’s track record has been, “Talk, talk, talk and no action.”