Carbon Monoxide Deaths: Blame the Keyless Ignition

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 10, 2019

Maybe I’m feeling my mortality these days, but I read not only the obituaries, but the small-type death notices, too. And in one such New York Times posting last week I encountered the story of James Duane Livingston, a distinguished 88-year-old researcher and MIT professor who died at his home in Sarasota, Florida along with his 81-year-old wife, Dr. Sherry Penney (the former interim president of both SUNY Plattsburgh and the University of Massachusetts). The cause: carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning via “a new car with a keyless ignition.”

James Duane Livingston and Sherry Penney, in happier days. (Barbara Livingston photo)

According to Kidsandcars.org, which tracks auto-based CO poisoning, Penney and Livingston died “of indifference.” Their car was a 2017 Toyota Avalon, and it continued running until it ran out of gas in their attached garage. KidsandCars.org claims, “The Penney-Livingston deaths bring the total of the known Toyota keyless ignition carbon monoxide fatalities to 17, with an additional 18 CO injuries. Deaths linked to keyless Toyota or Lexus models now account for 47 percent of the 37 known deaths.”

Toyota responded with a statement, "The safety and security of our customers are top priorities, and we sympathize with anyone in an accident involving one of our vehicles.  Toyota’s Smart Key System meets or exceeds all relevant federal safety standards, and we will continue to comply with all applicable standards now and in the future. Toyota’s Smart Key System also provides multiple layers of visual and auditory warnings to alert occupants that the vehicle is running when the driver exits with the key fob.” 

Unfortunately, some older buyers simply don't know what those warnings mean, suggesting a pre-purchase educational program might be helpful. And I’ve encountered these cases before. Car owners, particularly older Americans, have little familiarity with these systems and how they work, especially when coupled with start-stop systems. They park the car in the garage, and think it’s off—particularly because they have the key fob in their pockets. But they never hit the “Stop” button, which means the car is still running. And if the garage is attached it can very quickly begin filling the home with the lethal gas, which is both odorless and colorless.

Janette Fennell, the founder and president of KidsandCars.com, points out that cars today are so quiet that owners--particularly elderly ones--may not hear their engines continuing to run, and that the sound can be masked by the noisy closing of the power garage door. "We've changed dramatically how we start and stop our cars," she said. "Penney and Livingston were in their 80s, and had been driving the same way for many decades--you take the key out, the car is off, and away you go. People aren't being educated about this known hazard. Automakers have known about this issue for some time." Fennell thinks that cars should shut off after 30 minutes when the fob is not with the car, somewhat longer if it still is there.

Pasquale and Rina Fontanini left their Lincoln running. They both died.

After this story went to press--literally a day after--Toyota announced that it was adding, with the 2020 models, just such an auto shut-off feature that will "automatically shut off the engine after a pre-determined period of time in the event the vehicle is left running. Future enhancements will include smartphone App capabilities as an added reminder."  The company added that current Toyotas (since 2003) issue a two-step alert to tell drivers the car is running and requesting that it be turned off.

But the problem remains, not only for most of the cars on the road but for most of those now being built. Just about all the test cars I get have keyless ignitions. An exception was a Maserati I drove recently. Mercedes introduced the concept in the 1990s and, according to Edmunds, by 2008 it was standard on 11 percent of U.S. models. Talk about a fast adoption rate—by 2018 it was on 62 percent of all cars sold.

The start/stop button is in most new cars, and owners have to know they need to push it to shut the car off--even if they have the keys in their pocket. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Since people keep their cars an average of 11 years, chances are that many new car buyers are unfamiliar with the feature. A number of things would stop these incidents from occurring, or at least lessen them dramatically—carbon monoxide detectors (in the house, car or both), a series of beeps to let drivers to let drivers know their car was still running with the fob out of the car (proposed by the Society of Automotive Engineers), and automatic shutoff systems for cars after a specified period of time. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Edward Markey (D-MA) have introduced the PARK IT Act (S.1437) that would require an automatic shutoff, but it’s not required now.

Heidi King testifies: Nope on requiring CO safety devices in cars. (CSPAN)

“This problem has not been solved by voluntary industry measures,” the two senators said, urging the federal safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to take action. Deputy Administrator Heidi King, proposed as the agency’s head by President Trump, declined to commit to moving forward with a regulation (first proposed in 2011). "It's a shame that NHTSA had an investigation going, but now they've shut it down," Fennell said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 400 Americans are killed by CO poisoning annually, many of them poisoned by their cars. Here are some recent examples. Not all of them are directly related to not knowing the car is running—sometimes people run their garaged cars to warm them up, which is very dangerous, and that happened before keyless ignitions:

Thomas Martino and his wife, Pamela, were sent to the hospital last January after they left their Mercedes SUV running in the garage connected to their Tampa, Florida townhouse. Thomas Martino died, as did the couple’s two dogs. “Newer push-button cars tend to be quieter,” said firefighter Matt Russell on the scene, “and it’s very easy to forget, if you are distracted, to turn the button off.”

  • In 2010, Chasity Sunshine Lee Glisson died of CO poisoning after leaving her keyless Lexus running in an attached Florida garage.  She was found dead on the floor of her bathroom, and her visiting friend was unconscious. The dog died, too, and was buried with her. She was 27.
  • Chastity Sunshine Lee Gisson: A friend was coming to visit, so she parked in her garage--something she rarely did.

     

  • Last December, Juvenal Garcia Mora turned on his car (in his closed Louisville, Kentucky garage) to warm it up, while he got his two children, eight-year-old Mayra Garcia and three-year-old Cruz Isaac Garcia, ready for school. All three died.
  • Pasquale and Rina Fontanini of Highland Park, Illinois left their 2013 Lincoln MKS running in their attached garage in 2015, and both died from CO poisoning.
  • In 2017, Fred Schaub, owner of a Toyota RAV 4, drove the car into his attached garage in Florida, and—thinking the vehicle was turned off—went inside the house. A day later, he was found dead, evidently killed by CO while he slept.
  • Ashley Kendelle Fritz, known as “Bunky,” was legally blind and not very familiar with cars when in 2012 she used the phone charging plug in her husband’s Honda Ridgeline truck. She turned the car on to keep the charger and heater working, and was asphyxiated right there in the cab.

These things can and do happen. Until the automakers wake up and add some relevant technology to the myriad safety features already on cars today, it’s up to us to guard against CO poisoning. Here’s advice from CDC:

  • Have a mechanic check the exhaust system of your car or truck every year. A small leak in the exhaust system can lead to a build-up of CO inside the car.
  • Never run your car or truck inside a garage that is attached to a house even with the garage door open. Always open the door to a detached garage to let in fresh air when you run a car or truck inside.
  • If you drive a car or SUV with a tailgate, when you open the tailgate open the vents or windows to make sure air is moving through. If only the tailgate is open CO from the exhaust will be pulled into the car or SUV.
Carbon monoxide detectors: A fix so cheap and so easy to use, even our Web Lackeys have them. If yours runs on batteries, do us a favor and go check it now. (Car Talk Photo)

Here’s what we lost with Penney and Livingston: Sherry Hood Penney was the first woman to be appointed Vice Chancellor for Academic Programs at SUNY; before that she was an instructor and associate provost at Yale University.

Livingston was an expert on magnets, and his popular science book, Driving Force: The Natural Magic of Magnets (Harvard, 1996) was the basis of a History Channel program. He was also interested in genealogy and history, and wrote A Very Dangerous Woman: Martha Wright and Women’s Rights (University of Massachusetts Press, 2004 with his wife. Wright was his great-great grandmother. Livingston was a direct descendant of Robert Livingston, the first lord of Livingston Manor, New York, who arrived there from Scotland in 1673.

The authors wrote in the book: “Any bias we have toward our subject is more likely to arise from the fact that, like Martha, we are feminists and political and religious liberals.” Livingston also wrote, Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York (State University of New York Press, 2010).

This isn't the only issue that KidsandCars.org has worked on. In 1995, Fennell and her husband were abducted at gunpoint and locked in the trunk of their car before being assaulted and robbed. Miraculously, they survived, and Fennell became an activist, at first for the glow-in-the-dark safety tags that unlock the trunk from inside on every new car. That was the start, but the group has since worked on safer power window switches, brake/transmission interlocks, and the rear-view cameras that are now standard issue. Fennell deserves to take a bow for this--the best safety innovation since the airbag--and we should also remember the pioneering work of the late Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety.

Here's a video report on CO deaths:

 


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