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New Bunk Bed Safety Standards

Lynn Starks' three-year-old daughter, Whitney, died two years ago after strangling in a bunk bed accident.

Since then, the Oklahoma City woman has been pleading with federal regulators for mandatory standards that would make the familiar fixtures less of a hazard for children.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission approved the standards Thursday, effective next July. Mary Sheila Gall, the sole Republican on the commission was the lone dissenter in the 2-1 vote.

The mandatory standard, like voluntary standard already in place, requires that the opening in the structure of the upper bunk be less than three and a half inches all around.

But the new standard also will tighten the rules, requiring a continuous guard rail on the wall side of the top bunk. Until now, the only requirement has been for a partial guard rail. The commission's action also toughens spacing requirements for the lower bunk.

The mandatory standard allows the government to hold retailers and distributors accountable by levying fines against manufacturers who don't comply, officials said. U.S. Customs authorities will also be able to stop noncomplying bunk beds at the docks, said Ann Brown, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

When Whitney Starks' head got caught between the guard rail and mattress support rail on the upper bunk she became one of 57 children killed in bunk bed accidents in the last nine years.

"She was a beautiful little girl," Starks said. "I swore her death would not be in vain."

The problem for children often lies in the spacing between the slats of the upper bunk and the rest of the structure, officials said.

"If that spacing is too far apart, a child's body can slip through, but their heads get caught and they strangle," said agency spokesman Russ Rader.

Voluntary safety standards for bunk bed have been in place since 1992. Even so, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has recalled more than 630,000 bunk beds since 1994.

"Each one of those recalled bunk beds is a potential death trap," Brown said.

While established manufacturers have complied with voluntary standards, Brown said, the industry continues to have new entrants, with bunk beds available from foreign countries as well as on the Internet.

"Every time we go out, we can find more bunk beds to recall. That's just unacceptable," she said.

Starks was instrumental in getting a similar law passed in her home state of Oklahoma.

"You can do it in one state, but unless it goes national, the little manufacturers just don't know," she said.