SanDiego Union Tribune - Friday 5 August, 2005

4WD Driveway Deaths by the Union Tribune


Safety activist is trying to end a disturbing trend as more young children die in back-over accidents

August 15, 2005


A dad tousles his toddler's hair, picks up car keys from the kitchen counter and heads out the door toward the SUV parked in the driveway. Time for a quick trip to the market.

He climbs in, starts the engine, looks down to change the station on the radio. He doesn't notice that his son has followed him, and when he looks in the mirrors, he can't see the boy behind the SUV. He puts it in reverse.

"We call it the Bye-Bye Syndrome," said Janette Fennell. "The kids don't know cars are dangerous. They just want to give you another kiss."

For the past three years, Fennell has been tracking a disturbing trend in America: More young kids are being backed over and killed, usually by relatives, often in their own driveways.

CHARLIE RIEDEL / Associated Press

Safety activist Janette Fennell with her sons, Noah (center) and Alex. Fennell's Lexus has a camera and sensors to help guard against back-overs.

At least 101 died last year, up from 91 in 2003 and 58 in 2002, Fennell said. (She uses "at least" because no government agency tabulates back-overs.) On average, two kids die every week, according to her records, and another 50 are injured.

"There is absolutely nothing on Earth worse than the death of a child," Fennell said, "except when you are a parent who has run over and killed your own child. The grief is overwhelming."

Five kids, all age 2 or younger, were killed in back-overs in San Diego County in the past three years. In one case, a dad in El Cajon was moving his pickup truck to show to a prospective buyer. In another, a boy was playing at a Little League field in Ramona with a toy truck when he was rolled over by a real one.

Activists like Fennell, who runs a nonprofit organization, "Kids and Cars," from her home near Kansas City, trace the problem in part to America's on-going love affair with big vehicles.

SUVs, pickups, minivans they all have large "blind zones" behind them, said Sally Greenberg, senior product-safety counsel for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine. "With so many of these vehicles, you can't see what's behind you," she said. "They're tragedies waiting to happen."





How large are the blind zones?

In one televised demonstration earlier this year, "Good Morning America" had a correspondent sit in the driver's seat of a big SUV, glance over his shoulder and in the mirrors. Nothing, as far as he could tell, was behind him.

Then he got out and walked to the back of the vehicle, and 24 nursery schoolers were standing there.


Fennell usually describes herself as a mother first she has two sons, ages 10 and 6 and then as founder and president of Kids and Cars. She's worried enough about back-overs that she has a rear camera and sensors on her SUV, and urges other motorists to take advantage of the increasingly sophisticated technology.

"The truth of the matter is, too many parents think about what will keep kids happy in the car, like DVD players, instead of what will keep them safe," she said.

She is pushing for the implementation of federal standards that would improve rear visibility in vehicles and could lead ultimately to every vehicle having cameras but she knows from experience that she's in for a long battle.

Fennell, 51, half-jokes that she was dragged kicking and screaming to the issue of car safety. Ten years ago, while living in San Francisco, she and her husband, Greig, arrived home one night and were forced by robbers at gunpoint into the trunk of their Lexus.

They were driven to a bank and ordered to turn over an ATM card and the password. Left in the trunk, they clawed at the carpet, frantic about the fate of their 8-month-old son, last seen strapped in a car seat in the back of the Lexus.

They pulled at wires and cables and finally tripped the trunk release. The robbers were gone and so was their son. He later was found safe in the entryway of their home, still in his car seat.

Fennell had worked about 20 years in marketing and sales for Eastman Kodak and Helene Curtis, but at the time she was a stay-at-home mom with different priorities. Now she had a cause.

"The reason I became so passionate about this is that my family was spared," she said. "I wanted to give something back."

She started pushing car manufacturers to include devices that would open trunks from the inside. Car manufacturers pushed back, citing concerns about cost and questioning the prevalence of the problem.

What do the statistics show? Fennell asked.

There were no statistics. She started compiling her own, and documented 260 trunk deaths, many of them kids, in a 20-year period.

Eventually a law was passed requiring all new cars to have release mechanisms inside the trunk, beginning with 2002 models.

Fennell moved on to other safety concerns. She learned that kids occasionally are strangled in power windows, so she has lobbied successfully for design changes. Her ultimate goal is to see all windows have auto-reverse switches, similar to those on garage doors, which are tripped if the windows hit something while closing.

Lately, a prime focus has been "driveway deaths," those involving children backed over accidentally. "It's just skyrocketed in the past two years," she said.

Again, she found no government agency was tabulating the incidents, so she did it herself, using clippings from newspapers, the Internet, and a network of volunteers across the country. (When a reporter called federal highway officials for information on the issue recently, an agency spokesman recommended talking to Fennell.)

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report earlier this year documenting almost 2,500 back-over injuries annually in the U.S. The agency said children face "a substantial risk for severe injury and death" in such incidents and called for safety improvements.

Greenberg said she got interested in the issue about three years ago after seeing Fennell hold a press conference and demonstration in a grocery-store parking lot. "I just thought how pointless these deaths and injuries are, and how preventable they are," she said.

Most of the victims are 1-year-olds the age when many kids are beginning to walk. "Sometimes it's the first time the child has figured out how to open the door and go outside," Fennell said.

In one of the local cases, in May of 2004, a 16-month-old quadruplet named Cole Lovell was run over in the driveway of a Rancho San Diego home. A friend was backing a Cadillac Escalade out of the way so the Lovells could load their van and leave. There were nine adults around, and they didn't notice the boy.

"The little one, he doesn't walk that fast," Cole's sobbing grandmother told a reporter at the scene. "I don't know how he got there."

In more than 70 percent of the back-overs, a parent or close relative was behind the wheel when the accident occurred. Greenberg said that compounds the tragedy, "destroying families" with guilt and blame.

Most of the time more than 60 percent the vehicle is an SUV, pickup or van, according to Fennell's records. "Every car has a blind zone, where you can't see what's behind you," she said. "But the danger increases with larger vehicles."

Consumer Reports has begun measuring blind spots in its reviews of autos. (The blind spot is the distance behind the vehicle at which a driver looking through the rear window can first see the top of a 28-inch-high traffic cone.)

In a Honda Accord sedan, the blind spot for an average-height driver (5'8) is 12 feet, according to Consumer Reports. In a Chevrolet Avalanche, it's 30 feet. For a shorter driver (5'1) the blind spot in the Avalanche stretches more than 50 feet.

"People would be terrified to drive forward not being able to see 30, 40, or 50 feet," Greenberg said. "But we do it backward all the time."


Car safety is a moving target, in more ways than one.

New technology and designs almost always outpace the understanding of the potential risks and the ability of government agencies to regulate them. Mandatory seat-belt laws have only been around for about 20 years.

And when 42,636 people die annually on America's highways, as they did in 2004, down 248 from a year earlier, there are any number of issues to be studied, improvements to be proposed, laws to be passed.

When Fennell agitates for changes in trunk releases or power-window switches, or for better rear-visibility standards, she sometimes runs into the cold reckoning of bureaucratic priorities.

Yes, 100 kids were backed over and killed last year, but more than 10,000 people died in vehicle roll-overs. Shouldn't we tackle that problem first?

It's a calculation that doesn't hold much sway with her. "Any way you look at it, back-overs are significant," she said. "It's not anything we can ignore."

In June, as Congress was debating a massive new highway bill, Fennell testified about her particular niche of tragedy the death of kids in "non-traffic, non-crash" incidents.

"If children were dying by the hundreds in airplane crashes or due to food poisoning, this Congress would be racing to enact legislation to correct the problem," she said.

Congress passed the highway bill late last month and President Bush signed it into law Wednesday. Much of the media attention focused on the money that will go for road improvements, but tucked inside the legislation were numerous safety measures, too.

One of them calls on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to collect data on back-overs and study methods for reducing them.

"A study won't save lives, but it will give us a picture of how big problem is," Greenberg said. "It's not a bad first step, but what we really need now is a visibility standard."

Eron Shosteck, communications director for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the industry supports further study. "You always have to have sound science before moving forward with changes," he said.

Fennell and Greenberg have turned their attention now to a bill pending in Congress. Named after a Long Island boy who was backed over and killed in his driveway by his father, the Cameron Gulbransen Kids and Cars Safety Act of 2005 would set visibility standards for vehicles and could lead to mandatory cameras or sensors.

"It was a tough fight to get automakers to make seat belts and air bags standard equipment, but they did and this safety equipment has saved thousands of lives," Greenberg said. "The very same principles apply here."

But now Fennell sees another problem on the horizon. She said some of the SUVs and trucks are so big that drivers can't spot small kids in front of them, either.

Already this year her group has recorded 20 deaths of kids run over in driveways or parking lots by vehicles moving forward.