As Deaths Climb, Safety Advocates Want Renewed Action on Push-button Ignition Danger

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

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.”

Steph Willems
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  • 87 Morgan 87 Morgan on May 15, 2018

    ****BREAKING NEWS****28 deaths and 45 injuries dating back to 2006 due to people forgetting to hit the power off button on their push button ignition. Special legislative hearing to follow with perhaps a grand jury inquiry. Now back to your regularly scheduled programing of watching people, usually school children, being slaughtered by an assault rifle.... I extend my thoughts and prayers to the families of the 28 people who expired, it is a tragedy that was preventable with a modicum of common sense. Seems like that is the appropriate amount of public concern we need to show for ignition switches.

    • See 2 previous
    • Markf Markf on May 16, 2018

      @87 Morgan No, you do not a fully understand what an "assault" rifle is. DOD defines it as full auto, AR-15s are not full auto. AR-15s are not used by the military. The media (and people like you)defines "assault" rifle as any rifle that is black and scary. Many semi-autos shoot .223 and larger caliber but since they are not "military style" they are some how less deadly. All firearms are , wait for, designed for assault. As are ALL weapons. So since you are not concerned about folks who left their ignitions on, which is what this article is about STFU about firearms you obviously no know nothing about.

  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on May 16, 2018

    Hey this won't be a problem much longer b/c we are led to believe that everyone's car will be electric in another ten years.

  • TheEndlessEnigma Ah GM, never stop being you. GM is working hard to make FIAT look good.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Top Gear of the 2000's was a fresh concept and very well done. Sadly to say there isn't a TV show concept that doesn't eventually exhaust fresh ideas and, as a result, begins to rehash and wear out once were fresh ideas. The show eventually becomes a pale imitation of itself, then begins to embarrass itself, it will get to a point where it jumps the shark. Top Gear began to get stale, the Clarkson, Hammond and May left and the formula failed - surprise! the presenters were part of the magic. Fast forward many years and Grand Tower is trying hard to be Top Gear but it's all very obviously scripted (it always was by felt spontaneous in its original form), Clarkson, Hammond and May are much older, tired and have become caricatures of themselves. Guys, just stop. You should have stopped 10 years ago. Now you're just screwing with your reputations and legacies.
  • FreedMike Kudos to Toyota for making a legitimately slick looking piece (particularly in metallic cherry red). But PHEVs seem like a very narrow niche to me. Yes, the concept is cool - if you play your cards right you never have to fill up with gas, and the gas engine means you don't have to worry about charging facilities - but the operative words are "if you play your cards right." And PHEVs have all the drawbacks of EVs - spotty charging availability, decreased range in cold conditions, and higher price. Personally, I'd opt for a non plug-in Prius and use the plug-in money to upgrade the trim level. It's slower, but even the base Prius performs roughly on par with a Corolla or Civic, so it's not a dog anymore. But who buys a Prius to go fast in the first place? If I wanted to "go gas free," I'd just buy a BEV. YMMV, of course.
  • Analoggrotto Anyone seeking benchmark affluence will get the EV9 by Kia the most cutting edge electric vehicle on the market bar none.
  • Fahrvergnugen Any rollback would be inevitable if Agent Orange were elected anyhow.Next stop would be coal-powered ICE. Good clean American coal. Nice coal. The BEST coal.👿🐂💩