Today in the news an Oklahoma City child was hospitalized after getting her head stuck in the window of her family’s automobile. While left unattended with two other youngsters, the child somehow managed to get free from her safety seat and then inadvertently pressed the power-window switch – causing the window to close while her head stuck out. With her neck squeezed between the top frame of the car door and the edge of the glass, her breathing quickly became labored. Luckily, a neighbor who witnessed the events unfold (and then tried but failed to free the child from outside the vehicle) was able to quickly get a hold of the mother who was inside the house during the time of the incident. Although it is unclear exactly how long the child was trapped, reports say that when emergency personnel arrived on scene, her body was limp and she was making gasping attempts to breath. Fortunately, the asphyxia or suffocation experienced by the child was not prolonged to the point of detriment and she seems to be doing well, without any further complications.
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Many of us would rather brush this story off to the side as a “freak accident” – as something that rarely ever happens or that happens only when extenuating circumstances present themselves. Unfortunately, the reality of the matter is that accidents like the one described above are much more common than we might think (or like to believe, at least). Nor does it require too much imagination to envision a scenario from our own daily lives wherein a similar incident might occur.
An estimated 91% of all new cars sold on the U.S. market today have power windows. That’s nearly double the number of new vehicles sold with such advanced equipment in 1980, when more than 50% of new cars sold still had the standard crank-turn operated windows. Perhaps this near total integration of the energy and time saving technology (i.e. power windows) into new cars coming off the manufacturing lines helps to explain the frequency within which these types of stories seem to pop up in the news (albeit briefly; indeed, last week I heard a preview on the news about a nearly identical accident that occurred in the Kansas City area, but was then unable to find any traces of the story online or in print).
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an average five children are killed each year in the U.S. after having their head, neck, or midsection trapped in a power window. That is in addition to the estimated 1,000 who are reported as injured each year in similar power window incidents. Injuries sustained can vary in severity (and therefore length of recovery) anywhere from bruises and lacerations, to dislocated, crushed, or broken bones, all the way to permanent brain damage. Accidents and subsequent injuries from power windows typically result when a child, left unattended, inadvertently triggered the power window “up” switch in some manner.
Asphyxia, the medical term for anything that causes airway obstruction wherein the body is deprived of the vital oxygen it needs to function (incidents of strangulation or choking, for example), is the real hazard associated with power windows. When a child’s airway is compromised, when their normal oxygen intake is restricted, minimized, or cut off completely, after getting head, neck, or midsection caught in the vehicle window death can come in as few as 5 or 10 minutes without proper medical attention. Sadly, however, the children who are trapped that long and lose consciousness or stop breathing altogether, but are then successfully resuscitated by medical personal rarely fare much better. Current medical research/theory suggests that severe head trauma or brain damage from asphyxia can set in as quickly as 10 to 15 minutes. Survivors and families alike will then have a long road ahead of them as they adjust to life with varying degrees of permanent disability.
Currently there are three different types of power windows operating systems available in the US automobile marketplace: rocker, toggle, and level switches. Rocker switches, as the name suggests, operate like a rocking horse where pressing down either in front of or behind the center point causes the window to go up or down. Toggle switches use a back and forth motion to open and close the window. Finally, lever switches operate on a push-for-down and pull-for-up system.
Fortunately, because of the ease with which rocker and toggle switches can be unintentionally or accidentally triggered to send the window into upward motion, these types of switches will soon be phased out of the market. New federal government regulations mandate that all new passenger vehicles manufactured after October 1st of this year be equipped with lever switches, which are undoubtedly the safest of the three options because pressure downward on the buttons can only cause the window to go down; the only way to raise the window is to knowingly pull up on the lever. While this new regulation will not force the old switch types “off the road,” so to speak, it does help prevent future power window asphyxia injuries while slowly decreasing the number of the more dangerous rocker and toggle switches as old cars are replaced by newer models.
Despite their effort, many say that the current status of government regulation with regard to power window safety features is not enough – even with the pending outlaw of rocker and toggle switches. ARS technology that is integrated into the majority of cars on European roads (approximately 80%) could totally eliminate asphyxia and other power window injuries from our American vocabulary, making these horrendous tragedies something completely of the past. ARS stands for Automatic Reversing System and works essentially like a garage or elevator door wherein upon closing the door automatically reverses direction (opening again) anytime an obstruction is detected. Effectively, ARS would make it nearly impossible for a child to ever be injured by a power window again by putting a “stop switch” on windows that are accidentally closed when a head or hand out the window somehow goes unnoticed.
Today there are numerous organizations throughout the nation lobbying for federal regulations which would require ARS technology to be incorporated into all power windows on newly manufactured passenger vehicles. One such locally based organization is Kids and Cars, which is, according to their website, “dedicated to preventing injuries and death to children in or around motor vehicles”. Fov more in-depth and up-to-date information dealing with the dangers of power windows (or for general questions concerning car safety), please visit them at http://www.kidsandcars.org/.