Why Is There an Escape Handle in Your Trunk?

Maybe you've noticed it before, maybe you haven't... God forbid you've actually had to use it. Your trunk has a release handle, a glow-in-the-dark pull-latch that shows a presumably terrified would-be murder victim escaping and bounding down the street, after brilliantly pulling on said latch.

Seems like a smart thing to have in the trunk, but if you're anything like me, you've wondered how and why this macabre feature on your automobile came to be.

Flickr/Benjamin Ragheb

Spoiler alert: it’s a pretty dark story

You probably won’t be surprised to learn there’s a government regulation surrounding the escape handle. You also probably won’t be surprised that it stems from actual incidents surrounding people trapped in a trunk.

After receiving a petition from a citizen with an unusually keen interest in trunk safety, the government first considered an escape handle in 1984. Back then, nobody was collecting any data or statistics about trunk-related accidents, so the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration decided to stick its head in the proverbial sand and hope the issue went away. After all, these were the heady days of President Reagan, the Star Wars missile defense program, and the last few years of the Cold War. Surely the trunk release wasn’t that big of an issue, right?

Years went by. A bunch of people died. It wasn't until the summer of 1998 when Congress finally requested that the NHTSA take a second look into a trunk release handle.

Aaron Miller/Thrillist

Manufacturers were mandated to bring in experts to design a release latch that even young toddlers could operate. Ford and GM each used teams of problem solvers and psychologists. As it turns out, the solution to making an effective escape handle is as simple as keeping a kid entertained.

If a kid is trapped in a trunk, the natural response is to simply wait for help. Obvious to grown-ups but not at all obvious to kids, this does no good. An adult or even an animal will fight vigorously and make plenty of noise upon realizing that it’s stuck in a trunk. Not a young child, though. But what they will do is what all little kids do: look at a bright, shiny object and try to stick the damn thing in its mouth.

A natural phase of a child’s development first noted by Freud, oral fixation is annoying when your friends' kids won't stop grabbing your personal possessions and slobbering all over them. But it's life-saving if a kid is stuck in a trunk; the act of reaching for that glowing object and pulling it towards its mouth will unlock it.

And so it goes that the trunk release handle is shaped to fit a toddler's hand and glows in the dark like a weird, life-saving mobile over a crib, beckoning young children to try to stick it in their mouths.

The regulation went into effect in 2001. And the world has been a safer place since. Thanks, Freud.

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Aaron Miller is the Cars editor for Thrillist, and can be found on Twitter. One of his college buddies actually enjoyed getting locked in trunks. He went on to become a highly successful engineer.