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An Unusual Car Safety Hazard Is Claiming Lives

Keyless ignitions causing carbon monoxide deaths
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 28, 2019 12:36 PM CDT

(Newser) – Anyone asked to tick off common car safety issues might list things such as exploding airbags or rollovers. But keyless ignitions? As it turns out, the convenience feature has been blamed for nearly 40 deaths since 2005, including seven in the last six months alone, reports the Detroit Free Press and the New York Times. The problem occurs when people inadvertently leave their vehicles running in garages attached to their homes, then succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning. Now, a movement is afoot to put laws on the books requiring stricter safety standards. Details:

  • Couple's death: The Times story focuses on the deaths last month of Sherry Penney, 81, and her physicist husband, James Livingston, 88, in Sarasota, Fla. Penney was renowned in academia and Livingston in science, particularly in the field of magnets. "These are very smart people," Livingston's daughter Susan tells the newspaper. "This kind of situation can happen to anybody." They drove a 2017 Toyota Avalon, which continued to idle after they parked it in their attached garage and went inside their home. They were then poisoned by carbon monoxide.

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  • And here: A similar tragedy killed 68-year-old Russell Fish in Pennsylvania, reports the Free Press. He parked his Toyota 4Runner SUV in his attached garage one night in February, inadvertently left it running, then went inside to bed. He was found dead the next day. "I know exactly what the comments to my dad's story will say: 'It's Darwin's law,'" says daughter Tabitha Etlinger. But the mistake is far too easy to make, she adds.
  • Toyota's move: The automaker is adding a feature to 2020 keyless models that will automatically shut off the engine after a certain amount of inactivity, reports NBC Miami. Toyota, however, stands by its safety record and isn't linking the change to carbon monoxide deaths. About half the US deaths were in Toyota or Lexus (Toyota-owned) vehicles, per NBC. The Big 3 US automakers have varied degrees of such safety features in place, and the Free Press has the details. Some automakers haven't addressed the issue at all.
  • Possible law: Congress is considering the Park It Act on keyless ignitions, which would require engines to automatically shut off if they've been idling for a certain amount of time. "This is something we clearly have the technology to prevent," says Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the lead House sponsor. Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal has introduced a Senate bill. The legislation also would mandate a feature to guard against the vehicle rolling away if a driver exits but leaves it in gear.
  • Another fix in limbo: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a rule in 2011 that vehicles issue a one-second audible warning to remind drivers to turn off the ignition, which would have cost the industry a modest $500,000 per year. But the Times says industry lobbying has left the proposal in limbo.
  • NHTSA video: The federal safety agency has released a safety video on how to properly operate keyless ignitions here.
(Read more car safety stories.)

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