Marketing life-saving device a labour of love

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Marketing life-saving device a labour of love
THREE years ago, Susan Alagha was in a traffic mishap that could have injured or killed three young children.

While driving in her Toronto neighbourhood, Alagha came to a stop sign. She was about to proceed through the intersection when a van drove through a side street and cut her off.

The van's female driver backed up to give Alagha the right of way, but didn't see the youngsters crossing the street behind her.

Two kids were walking, with a 4-year-old riding a tricycle behind them.

Alagha was horrified.

``I wanted to honk, but I was afraid she might panic and drive back even faster,'' she says.

Luckily, the children made it across the street before the van backed up into them. No one was hurt.

But the potential for tragedy turned Alagha into an auto-safety crusader - and also provided a business opportunity.

``I couldn't get the incident out of my mind,'' she says.

In 1993, while visiting a sister in France, Alagha had seen a useful safety device, an alarm that let motorists know when they backed up too close to an object in their path.

She thought every car should have one.

As a mother of three, Alagha, 40, was painfully aware that children are often hit by cars driving in reverse.

She also knew that many vehicles, especially the popular minivans, are built in a way that obstructs a driver's rear vision.

So, why not sell an alarm similar to those she'd seen in Europe?

Today, Alagha is in the early stages of a promising business. Her company, Global Accents Ltd., distributes an ultrasonic reverse collision warning system, which starts at $200 to $250 with installation.

The Safe Reverse Sonar is sold at the Apple Auto Glass chain (150 stores in Canada, 15 in the Toronto area). The system is also available at five Superior Tire outlets in Toronto and two Safety Superstores.

``I think it's an absolutely perfect product, when you look at what it can do to save children and property,'' says Roger Aubé, owner of an Apple Auto Glass store in Bathurst, N.B.

New Brunswick Hydro is considering installing the alarm on the agency's entire fleet, Aubé says. He's also talking to taxis, cable TV and courier firms.

``I feel secure when parking now,'' he reports after installing the alarm on his three vehicles.

``When you back up, there's always a blind spot. With this, as long as it works okay, there's no blind spot.''

Here's how it works:

· Two sensors (each about the size of a ping pong ball) are installed on the back of the vehicle. They're wired into the backup light circuit and powered by the car's battery.

· A control unit in the car sets off a three-stage alarm when the sensors detect an object within 120 centimetres. The beep gets louder as the object gets closer and changes to a continuous tone at 50 centimetres.

· The alarm is activated only when the vehicle is shifted into reverse and sounds off when it finds something in the path, even if the car isn't moving.

Unlike a cheaper beeper used to warn those behind a reversing vehicle to get out of the way, this one tells the driver to apply the brakes immediately or change course.

Alagha drove a long and bumpy road to get the product to market.

First, she had to locate a supplier. Just a handful existed worldwide.

She asked the Canadian Embassy about a European company, which had gone out of business, but was given the name of an Asian supplier. This contact worked out.

Her supplier also builds reverse alert systems for big auto manufacturers.

The alarm is an option already on Ford Windstar minivans and will soon be available for Ford Explorer sport utility vehicles and some Cadillac vehicles.

About 15 European auto makers offer beeping cars, including Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Volkswagen.

Despite the rush into built-in units, Alagha sees great potential for her after-market device.

First, it's cheaper.

Second, it can be moved easily from one car to another. After finding a reliable supplier (the unit is ISO 9002 certified), Alagha had to set up a distribution system.

She soon realized installation was crucial.

If drivers attached the sensors improperly, they would get too many false alarms, or even worse, not enough warnings.

So, instead of going to self-serve retailers or setting up her own mail-order business, she focused on finding an installation chain. Apple Auto Glass fit the bill.

Alagha has sold 150 units so far, but expects them to fly off the shelves as safety awareness grows.

Her sales material includes stories about back-up fatalities involving children. In the latest, which happened in Toronto last April, a 5-year-old boy was killed after being hit by a van driven by his father.

Richard Wells of Willowdale bought a unit from Superior Tire for his Oldsmobile Sierra and found it helpful.

``Once, as I started to back out of my condo, the alarm caught a child who had started down the driveway and saved me from hitting him,'' he says.

``Every van or high-backed car should have one.''

Ellen Roseman's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. You can reach her by writing Your Business c/o The Toronto Star, 1 Yonge St. Toronto M5E 1E6, or by fax at (416) 865-3630 or at by E-mail.

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