The Dark Backstory Behind Your Car’s Emergency Trunk Release

The brutal kidnapping of Janette Fennell led to one of the most important safety features in modern vehicles

August 26, 2021 7:12 am
Janette Fennell, founder of Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition (TRUNC), standing outside of an opened car trunk. Her kidnapping led to the creation of the emergency trunk release.
Janette Fennell could have let a horrific incident define her life. Instead, she took action.
Burton McNeely via Getty

The concept of an emergency trunk release — now standard equipment even in vehicles whose cargo compartments are small enough to challenge even the most talented contortionists — seems like an obvious one. And yet, like so many self-evident safety features, its acceptance today is the result of a long lobbying effort to get both automakers and federal regulators to take the dangers posed by trunk traps seriously.

Unlike every other piece of modern safety equipment, however, the story behind the emergency trunk release is one of guns, abduction and a missing child. It’s a drama that galvanized a movement and brought passion to a bureaucracy more accustomed to dealing with cold, hard statistics. 

It’s the tale of Janette Fennell, the person most responsible for saving hundreds of lives each year thanks to her terrifying ordeal and relentless dedication to preventing it from ever happening to anyone else.

The Home Invasion

Look back to the beginning of the automotive safety movement in the 1960s and you won’t find a violent kidnapping leading the charge for the installation of seatbelts. Likewise, the late ‘80s were bereft of any home invasions convincing legislators to require airbags in modern vehicles. And yet, one terrifying night in 1995 saw a single triggering incident not listed in any automotive actuarial table lead directly to the trunk-release mandate.

Janette Fennell had just pulled into the garage of her home in northern California with her husband and infant son late one Saturday night when her world changed forever. As the garage door closed, two men in Halloween masks squeezed underneath it, sealing the couple and their attackers off from the outside world.

The men, brandishing guns, ordered the two into the trunk of their Lexus, slamming the lid down, and then, to the horror of the now-trapped parents, discovered the child slumbering in the backseat. Moments later the car was on the road. Locked in a pitch-black trunk, uncertain about the plans of the men who had kidnapped them and completely in the dark regarding the safety of their son, Fennell and her husband were convinced that if they didn’t escape from the situation, they were going to be killed. A desperate scramble ensued, with the two tugging at every wire, cable and jutting piece of metal they could find, but they had no success triggering their release.

An hour later the car stopped, the trunk was opened and they were once again confronted by their attackers. In the early morning chill they were robbed of the jewelry, cash and credit cards they had on them and then returned to their trunk prison. Desperate to know the fate of their child, the couple finally located a cable that had eluded their previous search and popped the trunk open from the inside, discovering in the process that the men had fled the scene — and that their son was nowhere to be found inside the vehicle. 

After hiking to a payphone and calling 911, they learned that their baby had been left safely on the front porch of their home.

A glow-in-the-dark trunk release handle in the back of a car. After Janette Fennell was kidnapped, she advocated for the safety feature to be mandatory.
Today, all cars are required to have glow-in-the-dark emergency trunk releases.

A Path Towards the Light

For most people, the trauma described above would have taken years to process. Fennell’s emotional process was indeed a protracted one, but she realized that in order to deal with her anxiety about her unknown assailants being at large — they were never caught — she had to funnel her energy into making sure no one else ever went through the same nightmare.

It began with research into trunk entrapment, which she discovered happened far more often to children than it did to adults. The statistics were grim across the board: violent endings for victims of trunk kidnappings were common, whereas kids often fell victim to the heat that builds up inside these unventilated spaces after accidentally closing the lids on themselves. It was a problem that had been clamoring for a solution since the mid-‘80s, when a steady call for some type of trunk safety system was sounded by families who had lost loved ones in these preventable accidents.

Three years after her own ordeal, Fennell was working with former police officer and then-Congressman Bart Stupak from Michigan to introduce legislation that would force the design of some type of emergency interior release for passenger cars in the United States. The initiative gathered steam, with Congress and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration working together to study the issue as part of the National Safe Kids Campaign, all against a backdrop that included a growing number of tragedies as more and more children were killed by accidental trunk mishaps.

Fennell’s own Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition (TRUNC) played a vital role in shepherding the proposed rule from conception to implementation (she would eventually found the Kids and Cars safety activism group whose work continues today). By 2002, all vehicles sold in the U.S. were required to feature a glow-in-the-dark handle that could be tugged from the inside of the trunk to pop it open (with retrofit options available for older models). Some car companies didn’t wait, as Ford began to deliver the emergency release in new vehicles before the end of the ‘90s.

There’s no question that Fennell’s story had the happiest possible ending given the harrowing risks she and her husband were facing from their armed assailants. Although older cars owned by those unaware of the availability of easy-to-install safety kits still contribute to heat-related entrapment deaths, without this near-tragedy it’s unlikely that the hundreds of lives that have since been saved by emergency trunk releases would still be with us.

A double-rainbow is a rare outcome for a dual-kidnapping, but thanks to Janette and her allies, an act of violence was alchemized into a safety net that continues to touch lives today.

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