As Deaths Climb, Safety Advocates Want Renewed Action on Push-button Ignition Danger
It’s a minor annoyance when you’re taking exterior photos of a car in a public place. You leap out to take that perfect shot, leaving the engine running, and no sooner have you walked a couple of paces when the vehicle emits a loud, obnoxious beep. Or perhaps a few. Everyone looks in your direction.
That’s a safety feature, as the car’s key fob rests safely in your pocket at that particular moment. The car isn’t sure what you’re up to — it just knows you left the vehicle running, and that could be a bad thing. While it’s an annoyance for a photographer, it’s there to prevent unpleasant incidents, including death by carbon monoxide exposure.
With push-button ignitions now present in half of new vehicles, safety groups continue pressing for an industry-wide solution to a problem we’ve known about for years: drivers inadvertently leaving their vehicles running in the garage.
The most recent look at the issue comes from The New York Times, which details the 28 deaths and 45 injuries attributed to accidental carbon monoxide exposure stemming from pushbutton-equipped vehicles left running while parked indoors. As no one keeps official track of these incidents, the paper cobbled them together from news reports dating back to 2006.
This story keeps cropping up because measures designed to prevent the deaths are piecemeal. And, in some cases, insufficient — according to those advocates. In 2006, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration added a new rule mandating that push-button vehicles emit a warning to alert the driver before he or she leaves the vehicle running unattended.
While the NYT doesn’t go into great detail in describing the latest safety measures taken by each of the 17 automakers it contacted, it singles out Toyota and its Lexus luxury division for its involvement in nearly half of all known fatalities since 2006. Ford gets kudos for offering a system that shuts down the engine 30 minutes after the fob leaves the car.
Still, the measures vary by automaker, and sometimes among vehicles of the same make. Frankly, it’s a feature almost no one talks about. GM’s Back Seat Reminder, a feature designed to prevent the deaths of children accidentally left in hot cars, got plenty of press when it hit the market in 2017. “Engine on” reminders did not, and do not.
While Toyota wrote that its system “meets or exceeds all relevant federal safety standards,” a past lawsuit reveals engineers pressed for greater safety measures. Three short beeps upon leaving the car (with one heard inside) was not sufficient, they claimed, but the company overruled any changes.
The Times piece details the grim aftermath of incidents dating back to the middle of last decade, all the way up to 2015.
What’s made the issue such a longstanding one is the continued lack of an industry-wide standard. In 2011, the Society of Automotive Engineers pressed the NHTSA to mandate a more agressive series of audible and visual warnings or, even better, an auto-shutdown feature. Soon after, the NHTSA issued a proposal calling for more beeps, but it never made it into law. An investigation into seven manufacturers didn’t result in any concrete action, either.
Since then, automakers have charted their own course, deciding for themselves whether their systems are sufficient. All the while, safety groups have pressed the NHTSA to enact new standards.
Responding to a query in March, the agency stated, “Once N.H.T.S.A. has finished its review and determined the best path forward, N.H.T.S.A. will take appropriate action.”
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