Changes in vehicle safety standards influenced by one woman

Over the years, Fennell and her association have fought to pass legislations mandating multiple other safety features as well.

Janette Fennell has played an instrumental role in standardizing a number of safety features on cars, starting with the glow-in-the-dark emergency release lever inside the boot.

Back in 1995, Janette Fennell and her husband were kidnapped outside their home. The kidnappers, locked both of them in the boot of their Lexus sedan and drove away into the night. Janette and her husband, locked in the boot, frantically scrambled to find a way to escape, but to no avail.

Post the kidnapping, Fennell wondered why cars didn’t come with a lever to open the boot from the inside, in case of any emergency. In the months that followed, Fennell wrote to every major car manufacturer enquiring about the lack of the emergency release in the boot. With no response from any brand, she soon realised that there wasn’t any data for such incidents.

Fennell then decided to accumulate the data herself. Through a tedious process, she was soon able to find 931 similar cases from 20 years preceding her incident. From these cases, 1082 people were found to have been locked up in the boot of a car with no way of escape. Another shocking result found was that one in four cases reported victims dying of asphyxiation, heatstroke or hypothermia.

She further classified all her cases into two categories – kids accidentally locking themselves in the boot and kidnapped victims who were forced in.

Fennell also found that there had already been over two dozen petitions requesting the installation of emergency boot release levers. She also found that carmakers would need to spend around $0.20 – $4 to install these levers in their cars.

With all the data in hand, Fennell moved to Washington and in 1996, launched her own association – Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition (TRUNC) and got her first break in 1997. Later in 1999, the NHTSA passed a mandate that all cars sold post-2002 will need to mandatorily come with the emergency boot release lever.

However, over the past 20 years, Fennell and her association have gone on and fought to pass legislation mandating multiple other safety features as well. These include safer power window switches, brake-shift interlock systems, seat belt reminders and rearview camera; all of which have now been mandated on cars.

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