BY JUSTIN HYDE FREE PRESS WASHINGTON STAFF
Starting in 2008, automakers will have to install safer power window switches that prevent children from trapping themselves, according to updated rules federal safety regulators released this week on orders from Congress.
But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rejected a call from a coalition of safety groups to mandate auto-reverse sensors on all power windows. The agency said there isn’t enough proof of harm to justify the $35- to $50-per-vehicle cost of installing such systems.
The agency says the change will prevent one child’s death and one serious injury per year. Safety groups contend accidents involving power windows are far more prevalent — with 39 deaths since 1990 and up to 500 accident cases a year — and are lobbying Congress to require auto-reverse systems.
“Switches are part of the problem, and as soon as that’s fixed, that part of the problem will be solved,” said Janette Fennell, president of KIDS AND CARS, a safety advocacy group.
But even with new switches, drivers still could close windows with a child’s fingers, hand, or, as in a few cases, his or her head sticking out. “That type of switch isn’t going to help in that type of situation,” she said.
The decision released Wednesday says that after Oct. 1, 2008, automakers will be required to install switches that close windows only when they’re pulled up or out. The previous safety rule released in 2004 allowed automakers to keep older switches known as rocker or toggle switches, if they passed a test designed to stop an accidental activation.
Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said many automakers “virtually phased out” the old designs voluntarily.
After the safety administration released its previous rule, safety advocates asked it to consider making new designs and auto-reverse sensors mandatory. They went to Congress and it ordered the agency to make pull-up switches mandatory in a bill passed last year.
The agency said it had considered the safety group’s call for auto-reversing systems, but there were no data to support their description of the problem. It noted that it found only one case in which a child died after a driver closed a power window accidentally.
“It is not feasible to eliminate all potentially conceivable risks through regulation,” the agency said in its rule. “We do not believe that the high cost of automatic reversal systems are justified in the absence of data demonstrating a safety need.”
Congress could act again on behalf of the safety groups; two pending bills would require automakers to install auto-reverse systems.