On an unfortunate day in 1995, kidnappers forced a couple into the trunk of a car at gunpoint. Unable to get out and without knowledge of where their infant son was, the couple was robbed and left them in the trunk. After escaping, they became advocates for an easier way to do so. Eventually, they won.
Happy Sunday! Welcome to Holy Shift, where we highlight big innovations in the auto and racing industries each week—whether they be necessary or simply for comfort—and, on occasion, weird car history.
The car that the Fennell family was in—their own vehicle, to make the situation worse—didn’t have an emergency trunk release in it, which left them virtually helpless in their attempts to escape. That’s because a release wasn’t mandatory in 1995, and it wouldn’t be for years to come. Per the LA Times, Janette Fennell and her husband found the trunk-release cable from inside of the car and let themselves out.
After the incident, Atlas Obscura reports that a police officer told Fennell that “stories didn’t end so well” for most people involved similar situations. She couldn’t stop thinking about the statement, and soon went to the internet to find statistics on what happened to others who hadn’t escaped.
She found plenty of cases with brutal ends for victims trapped in trunks, and Atlas Obscura quotes her as saying it was a sign “go out there and change it.” That’s when she began trying to get the attention of car companies and the federal government.
Surviving the ordeal led Fennell to found several organizations, one called “Kids and Cars,” and fight for a way to keep others from facing the same scare—at least, in U.S. car regulations. But not everyone was on board with the idea.
Fennell told the LA Times some of the strange reasoning behind early opposition to an emergency release, though formal reports on these statements couldn’t be found on an extensive search:
Early on, auto makers fought mandatory rules, arguing that “a criminal may become more violent if they know there’s a trunk release and the victim could escape . . . or that releases would give children the message that it is OK to play in the trunk because they could easily get out,” Fennell said.
The deaths of 11 children from playing in car trunks in 1998 brought Fennell’s issue forward, according to the LA Times. But in a meeting to discuss mandating emergency trunk releases with advocates, manufacturers, medical experts and safety experts that year, Fennell told Atlas Obscura that meeting goers “were all backing down at the last minute.”
But others fought for the same cause as Fennel, and a statistic from the Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition in 2000 claimed that at least 1,250 people in the U.S had been trapped in trunks during the two decades leading up to that year. A major step in mandating trunk releases came in 2000 as well, according to the LA Times—the federal government proposed rules for doing so.
The official mandate came just a year later in September 2001, and all cars manufactured after that date had to feature an emergency trunk release. But automakers began putting trunk releases into their vehicles before the mandate even went into effect, including both Ford and GM—Ford made them standard in 2000 model-year cars and GM offered them as an option, according to the LA Times.
These days, new cars in the U.S. all come with a glowing mechanism to easily pop the trunk from the inside. According to Cars.com, no one had died in a new car since the mandate as of 2012—in older cars, though, the website claimed that there had been at least 22 child deaths during that time period.
As for Fennell, she continues to help movements dedicated to lessening the number of child deaths in non-traffic car incidents with her “Kids and Cars” organization. But according to Atlas Obscura, the trunk incident remains a big part of her life—in her living room, there’s a painting representing the event hanging just above the mantlepiece.
As Atlas Obscura describes it, the painting highlights each family member’s heart with a yellow dot. Their hearts are still beating because of a clever escape, and there are plenty of other hearts still beating because of Fennell’s dedicated campaign.
If you have suggestions for future innovations or historical notes to be featured on Holy Shift—in street cars, the racing industry or whatever you’d like—feel free to send an email to the address below or leave them in the comments section. The topic range is broad, so don’t hesitate with your ideas.