'Dead lock' system may put lives in danger

Time of article published Jan 17, 2010

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By Murray Williams

Staff Writer

Car owners have been urged to urgently check their cars' alarms after a primary school boy was trapped and nearly suffocated in a car in the blistering Cape heat this week.

The boy's mother, who asked not to be named, told how she had picked up her son, William, on the first day of the term on Wednesday.

Returning to their home in Somerset West, she opened her door and got out, assumed her nine-year-old son had done the same, and then closed her door and locked the car with the remote control.

She then went inside the house and began a series of chores - not knowing that her son was still in the car.

Outside, temperatures were soaring up to 43°C in parts of the Winelands.

After more than 10 minutes she wondered why her son was dawdling, and went outside to see what was delaying him. And as she stepped outside she heard his screams.

To her dismay, the Grade 3 boy was still in the car and had not been able to get out.

Young William had stripped off all his clothes from the heat and was near-hysterical from his failed efforts to free himself.

The woman unlocked the car with her remote and the boy later recovered from his ordeal.

But the mother was distraught at why her son had not been able to let himself out.

Later that night, when she told her husband, he asked her to lock him in the car, and found that he could not let himself out either.

Their vehicle was a late-model Audi station wagon and enquiries to Audi dealerships in Cape Town yesterday confirmed that these cars were fitted with a "dead lock" system, activated when the vehicle was locked.

This de-activates controls for the windows, the central locking and door handles inside Audis when the car is locked from the outside. This system is designed to prevent would-be thieves from smashing a window and then reaching inside and opening the door, salesmen reported.

The Cape Argus tested a number of other makes yesterday and found that Volkswagen has a similar automatic dead lock system.

Gary Ronald, spokesman for the AA, was dismayed to learn of the issue yesterday.

While he understood the rationale for the system, he said there were numerous circumstances in which it could be dangerous or even fatal for people in a car not to be able to get out at their will.

"It could be a matter of life and death," he said.

Ronald urged motorists to establish whether their vehicles had this "dead lock" feature, and to enquire whether it could be disabled, as airbags could when transporting young children, for example.

Of all the manufacturers tested on Thursday, BMW seemed to have the smartest system - offering a dead lock, but one which had to be deliberately activated by double-clicking the cars' remote controls.

A vehicle security expert from Somerset West advised all motorists to carry a small hammer in their cars to smash the windows in emergencies - like in a car crash, if the central-locking system or dead lock system was somehow activated, for example.

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