NHTSA Rejects Auto-Reverse Petition; New Rule Prohibits Rocker and Toggle Window Switches

Reprinted from The Safety Record, V3, Issue 3, May / June 2006

Washington, D.C. - The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has again denied a petition from safety advocates requesting that the agency require automakers to install an auto-reverse function in their power windows, but has implemented a provision in the latest highway safety bill requiring switches that raise a power window only when the switch is pulled up or out.

The April 12 decision comes two years after the agency issued a final rule that would have merely establish a performance standard for accidental actuation of a power window, partition or roof panel. That regulation was meant to reduce the number of deaths and injuries caused by children kneeling or leaning on rocker or toggle switches, accidentally pinning either their heads or limbs in a closed window. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, each year, 1.5 child deaths are attributed to power window strangulations and about 500 people seek emergency room treatment in U.S. hospitals for fractures, scrapes, cuts and sprains from power window accidents. Janette Fennell, president of KIDS AND CARS, says that the government data vastly underestimates the number of power window deaths each year. Since 1962, at least 59 children have died caught in a power window accident, she says.

The rule is "a great step forward" says Fennell, but the real credit goes to Congress, which passed the $286.4 billion Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act last year, with the requirement that the agency update the regulation to outlaw rocker and toggle switches.

Fennell and other safety advocates, including Consumers Union, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and the Center for Auto Safety, for had taken their case for better designed switches directly to Congress, after NHTSA denied their first set of petitions requesting auto-reverse power windows and pulled-up-or-out switches. NHTSA's September 2004 final rule would have implemented a simple accidental actuation test meant to simulate a child's knee pressing on the switch, and allowed the manufacturer to come up with a compliant design. The agency had anticipated that automakers would respond by either shielding or recessing the switches, redesigning them or installing other technology, such as automatic reversal systems.

The agency's most recent version still requires the accidental actuation test with a few technical modifications, but effectively outlaws rocker or toggle switches. NHTSA rejected a petition from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers to exclude window switches mounted on vertical or nearly vertical surfaces. The danger of a child inadvertent activating the switch by leaning on it is just as likely as when the switch is horizontally mounted, the agency said. The new regulation will become effective in October 2008.

The fight for the installation of automatic reversal systems will go on, Fennell says, because many of the accidental deaths and injuries caused by inadvertent window closings are actually caused by other people in the car, who did not notice that another occupant had a head or limb out of the window. The agency's data seems to support this - even though it has repeatedly maintained that there is not enough evidence of benefits to justify the expense of requiring automatic reversal windows. In a 1997 NHTSA study that established the 500 power window injuries a year estimate, 88 percent were injured as a result of unintentionally closing the window on one's own or another person's hand, finger or wrist.

"We get calls all of the time," Fennell said. "It's almost always someone else is putting up the windows, so it doesn't matter what kind of switch the car has. The sad thing is, this is on 80 percent of cars in Europe. If you buy a Ford Focus in Europe, it has auto-reverse windows. If you buy a Ford Focus here, you can't even get it as an option. We can eradicate anyone being killed by a power window, we just have to design out the danger."

Once again, advocates are trying to resolve the issue through federal legislation, and have bills pending in the U.S. House and Senate.

Meanwhile, German researchers have concluded that reducing the velocity of power windows may also reduce injuries associated with electronically controlled car and building windows, Researchers from the Berufsgenossenschaftliches Instiut Arbeit und Gesunheit conducted an experiment to determine the closing velocity at which a person might still withdraw their hand safely. The study examined reaction times at different velocities when subjects were or were not distracted and measured their mental stress. They found that subjects reacted quicker to the touch of the closing window when distracted, and that mental stress was higher, but neither varied much by closing velocities. The researchers concluded that a velocity between 2.5 and 5.0 mm/s would allow some people sufficient time to safely withdraw their hands from power windows - a lower speed than has been recommended in the past. But reducing closing velocity is only one mitigation measure. Designers could also consider limitation of forces, too, the researchers said.

Copyright © Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., 2006

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