The power of the partnership between survivor advocates and injury prevention professionals far
exceeds the power of either working alone.


Janette Fennell


Greig, Janette and infant Alexander Fennell returned home around midnight in October 1995. A masked man rolled under their descending garage door. He and an accomplice forced the adults at gunpoint into the trunk of their car, drove to a remote area, robbed them, and left. Cramped and frantic, they tore apart the trunk’s interior. Finally, they found the release cable. Freeing themselves, they realized that Alexander was no longer in the back seat. They found a phone booth and called the police. Returning home, they saw a policeman holding Alexander, who had been left outside their home.


The Fennell kidnaping was front-page news and journalists wanted stories. The Fennells agreed to collaborate, as long as the focus was on prevention. The police had said: “It usually it doesn’t end this way” after they learned Alexander was unharmed. Janette decided to find out what usually happens. But no one could tell her. Highway safety data, criminal justice statistics, health data - no one collected data on trunk entrapment. So she developed her own database. She used newspaper accounts, court records, Internet sites, Lexis/Nexis, and word of mouth to develop a database. As of May 2000, she has uncovered documentation on 931 incidents of trunk entrapment involving 1,082 victims in the United States in the last quarter century (1976-2000).

Janette was absolutely determined to make car trunks escapable. She knew that regulation and product redesign had prevented children from dying when trapped in discarded refrigerators. She felt strongly: “Any manufacturer who produces a product that can trap people inside should be obliged to provide a means of escape.”

Ms. Fennell founded the organization TRUNC (Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition) in 1996 and created its website in mid-1997 ( This became a powerful tool for providing information for survivors, consumers, journalists, and policymakers.

Media coverage kept the issue alive. Fellow advocates from Florida encouraged the Fennells to be the spokespeople on a nationally syndicated TV talk show in January 1997. They urged viewers to advocate for making interior trunk releases a standard feature on all vehicles. In December 1997, a prime time investigatory program ran a feature segment about the trunk entrapment issue. Good Housekeeping covered the story in November 1997.

The Fennells naively thought that carmakers would fix the problem if they knew about it. They wrote a letter to all carmakers in February 1997 and again in November 1997. These letters were virtually ignored. The carmakers’ trade association did respond in January 1998, after a prime time TV investigatory program indicated that automakers were unresponsive, but nothing was done.

A series of introductions led Janette to a sympathetic policymaker. A nurse in a Wisconsin hospital led her to a children’s organization, who led her to a police chief interested in abductions, who introduced her to a former highway patrolman, Congressman Bart Stupak. Stupak also wanted cars to have interior trunk releases. He introduced a bill in the Congress, but Congress was unwilling to regulate trunk releases. However, in June 1998, in its omnibus transportation bill, Congress included Stupak’s amendment requiring NHTSA to conduct a study about trunk entrapment.

Then in July/August of 1998, 11 young children died of hyperthermia after being trapped in trunks in three separate incidents in New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Utah. It was Ms. Fennell who led a USA Today journalist to link the stories. This linkage re-framed the story from an isolated “freak accident” to a significant safety problem and a front-page national story. Janette’s database and experience permitted her to influence coverage of these unwelcome but newsworthy tragedies. She argued for trunk releases through various popular print and electronic channels and thus reached diverse segments of the population. Media features included LA Times (3/30/99), People magazine (5/24/99), Oprah (6/4/99), Washington Post (6/19/99), Readers Digest (10/99) and Redbook (2/00).

In November 1998, NHTSA asked the National SAFE KIDS Campaign to conduct the trunk entrapment study. They formed the Expert Panel on Trunk Entrapment, which included experts from psychiatry, law enforcement, health and medicine, safety advocacy (including Ms. Fennell) and the automotive and toy industries. The panel concluded in June 1999 that NHTSA should issue a standard requiring vehicles to be equipped with interior trunk release mechanisms. (1)

In December 1999, NHTSA issued for public comment a proposed rulemaking to mandate that release mechanisms be installed by Jan.1, 2001in all vehicles with a trunk. NHTSA allows automakers to choose what type of handle or device to use. Some manufacturers have already begun to install trunk releases as standard equipment.

For five years, Janette’s life has been consumed with the campaign to make car trunks escapable, in combination with grieving the death of her mother in 1997, caring for Alexander and giving birth to her second son Noah in 1998. Time for sleep has been in very short supply. In addition, the Fennells financed all their advocacy work out of personal savings, receiving no outside financial support.

Now that NHTSA has begun the process of rulemaking to require internal trunk releases, Janette has taken on another cause - to prevent deaths and injuries resulting from children being left unattended in and around vehicles. She has founded a new organization, KIDS ‘N CARS, with two survivor advocates, Michele and Terrill Struttmann, whose toddler son Harrison was killed by a van put into drive by two toddlers who had been left alone in the van.



TRUNC website:
KIDS ‘N CARS website:

(1) Expert Panel on Trunk Entrapment. Recommendations, June 1999.