It's taken a tragedy to spark interest in Dave Hoven's product.

The retired airline pilot has been trying to sell inside-trunk release levers that consumers can install themselves for nine months. Until Monday, there was no interest."I sold three and had maybe six inquiries," said Hoven, who lives near Orlando, Fla., "Today, I've had at least 30 or 40 calls and sold the kit to about one-third of the callers. The phone has been buzzing all day. It wasn't a good way to get business, but the whole thrust is to avoid tragedies like the one in Utah."

Five little girls died from heat stroke Friday in West Valley City after they climbed into the trunk of a car and closed it. The girls were in the trunk for about 50 minutes before a police officer discovered the bodies.

Based on previous studies, the temperature of cars parked in the sun can reach upwards of 150 degrees, said Utah State Medical Examiner Todd Grey. It is difficult to determine how long a young child could survive in such extreme temperatures, but children trapped in similar heat have died within 30 minutes.

West Valley police detectives are running tests on the 1993 green Saturn to determine what the exact temperature was in the trunk, Lt. Charles Illsley said. It was 96 degrees in West Valley at the time. Police most likely won't finish the tests until after the funeral Wednesday.

Officers identified the girls as Jaesha Smith, 4, Audrey Smith, 2, Ashley Richardson, 3, Alisha Richardson, 6, and McKell "Pickles" Shae Ann Hedden, 5.

The incident has safety advocates and legislators talking about new safety standards.

The six-year highway bill signed into law this year mandates the National Highway Safety and Transportation Administration to study the feasibility of trunk releases and to report its findings to the House and Senate Commerce Committees by December 1999.

NHSTA officials are doing a "preliminary assessment of the seriousness of the problem, the cost to correct it and the most practical solution," said Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah. Later this month, Cook is planning to meet with Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan, who sponsored an amendment requiring the study, to discuss "what the next step should be."

"I'm delighted NHSTA is conducting this study, but I don't want the momentum to stop there," Cook said. "The tragic deaths of four little (cousins) in New Mexico last month and these five little girls in West Valley City is appalling. Something must be done to prevent further tragedies."

The five West Valley girls might still be alive if the car would had had a trunk release lever on the inside, Hoven said.

Hoven, a member of the Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition, wants every car to have an inside trunk lever. So far the group hasn't had much success lobbying lawmakers and car manufacturers, but he thinks that will change.

"I think people will start to take an interest in this," said Hoven, 69. "We've got to get the car makers to do something about it."

The West Valley incident has created momentum. Several media agencies and dozens of individuals around the country called Hoven Monday asking about his group and the trunk latch kit the coalition sells.

The $25 kit provides the material and instructions to install a release latch in most cars. The profits go to the coalition's lobbying efforts, he said. The group's number is 1-800-641-8146.

Hoven became interested in the latch issue when he and a friend kept reading about people who got stuck in car trunks. In the United States, about 700 people have been trapped, he said.

A lot of the cases involved muggers locking tourists in the trunks of rental cars. In other situations, kids accidently lock themselves in, Hoven said.

At least 11 children have died in trunks this summer, five in the West Valley incident, four in Gallup, N.M., and two in Greensboro, Pa. In all three cases, the kids accidentally locked themselves in a trunk while playing.

A safety release lever could have saved the kids and the other people trapped inside the trunks, Hoven believes. The feature would only cost carmakers $4 or $5 in materials, he said.

Trunks don't have the feature now because consumers haven't asked for it, according to carmakers and dealers.

"It's not something that's been a concern yet," said Rod Rowley, the sales manager at Larry H. Miller Cadillac. "But I predict it will be because of what happened in West Valley."

Cadillac installs a release latch in its Catera models. It's the only carmaker to offer the feature. But Rowley has never had anyone ask about the feature or buy the model because of it, he said.

Even with the lever, car owners will have to show their children how to use it or it won't make a difference, Rowley said.

"I could lock my 5-year-old in a trunk and he wouldn't know what to do with (a safety release lever)," he said. "I could lock one of my salesmen in the trunk and they wouldn't know what to do with it."

No customer has ever asked Riverton Chevy-Oldsmobile sales manager Ross Baldwin for a car with a release lever, either.

"I've been in the business 30 years and nobody has asked for an inside trunk release," he said. "If enough people start asking for them, I can guarantee the carmakers will install them."

It's too early to say if or when car manufacturers will start installing them, said Saturn spokesman Greg Martin.

"During the normal use of a vehicle, there's no reason to suggest or need an inside truck latch," Martin said. "It's very preliminary to even think or discuss what may come of this tragic occurrence."

In the meantime, parents can take steps to avoid parked-car-related injuries, according to safety advocates:

- Always lock the car when it's parked and put keys out of children's reach.

- Discourage kids from playing in or around vehicles - especially in the trunks.

- Don't leave children in parked cars - even if you're only stepping away for a minute.

"We've done tests where temperatures have reached 140 and 150 degrees (in parked cars)," Salt Lake County Fire Capt. Bill Brass said. "In spots near the windshield, the temperature reached 180 degrees."


Additional Information

What you can do

Here's what TRUNC, the Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition, suggests:

- Install a release latch inside your car trunk. Do-it-yourself directions are available on the coalition's Web site ( trunc). A locksmith, car dealer or stereo installer should be able to help.

- Keep a crowbar, pliers, wrench and/or screwdriver in the trunk to pry open the latch, or bang for help.

- Tell automobile manufacturers and Congress that all new cars should have interior trunk releases installed as standard equipment.

TRUNC can be reached at 537 Jones St. No. 2514, San Francisco, CA 94102