Corrections & Clarifications: A previous version of this story misstated when Toyota announced that it would add automatic engine shutoff and automatic park technology to its 2020 model year lineup in North America.
Pennsylvanian Russell Fish was “paranoid about everything,” so much so, he even locked his bedroom door each night, his daughter said.
But no lock would keep his killer out the night of Feb. 15 this year.
With his wife out of town, Fish, 68, returned home from a Subway restaurant, parked his keyless Toyota 4Runner SUV in his attached garage, ate and went to bed with his dog, Angel, by his side.
Neither ever woke up.
“My dad was dead in his bed,” said Tabitha Etlinger, Fish’s 35-year-old daughter. “His dog was seizing on the floor when the rescuers broke down the door the next morning. They tried to resuscitate the dog, but they could not save him either.”
The killer was carbon monoxide poisoning from the SUV that Fish accidentally left running in his garage for nearly 10 hours.
Fish is one of four people in the United States known to have died this year from carbon monoxide poisoning after leaving a keyless ignition car running in their garage.
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Auto safety experts say it’s an ongoing problem. They want legislation mandating that automakers install automatic engine shutoffs – along with software that would make a car immobile if a driver left it in gear.
Such technology exists, and some carmakers, including the Detroit Three, offer versions of the safety technology on most of their vehicles. Toyota announced last week that it will add automatic engine shutoff and automatic park technology to its 2020 model year lineup in North America.
But many other carmakers do not put such safety technology on their keyless cars. Safety advocates say the auto industry has instead had a mentality of blaming victims, said plaintiffs lawyer Frank Melton.
“The auto industry has known for more than a decade that people were being injured and people were dying,” said Melton. “There was a conscious decision to not put an automatic shutoff in the vehicles.”
Melton and Todd Walburg from Cutter Law in Oakland, California, are suing Toyota on behalf of a young Florida couple left brain damaged after leaving their keyless 2014 Lexus sedan running in the garage for six hours.
In February, a proposed law dubbed the PARK IT Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate. A House version was introduced June 6.
The name stands for Protecting Americans from the Risk of Keyless Technology. It seeks the following:
- That automakers be required to provide an automatic shutoff for keyless internal combustion engines when the car has been idling for a designated period of time.
- That carmakers add an anti-rollaway feature to immobilize a car if a driver exits it, but leaves it in gear.
- It mandates that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issue rules within two years of the law’s passage.
Since 2005, 37 people have died by unknowingly leaving their vehicles running in their attached garage, according to data from Safety Research & Strategies Inc., which specializes in car safety.
For 2012-14, NHTSA data show that 142 people died in rollaway accidents, though it’s not clear how many of those involved keyless vehicles.
The technology already exists to do what the bill asks, said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies. Auto shutoffs have been used by some carmakers since 2012 on keyless ignition vehicles. Automatic anti-rollaway features have been available on electric parking brakes since 2003 and automatic park engagement on vehicles with electronic shifters since at least 2013, he said.
The cost for automakers to add safety technology to vehicles would be nominal, said Kane.
“Automakers know that we’re human and you have so many reminders such as a sound to put on your seat belt, the door is ajar, check your tire pressure,” said Janette Fennell, founder of KidsAndCars.org, a nonprofit national child safety organization. “If you can put all of that on a vehicle, why can’t you have a car that tells you that you left the vehicle on and then an automatic shutoff to turn it off?”
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said current keyless ignition operation and designs follow the recommended practices of the Society of Automotive Engineers. SAE recommendations also focus on uniform labeling to help consumers understand how keyless systems function, said Wade Newton, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Newton noted that regulations are in place to address brake transmission shift interlocks to avoid rollaway accidents.
“There’s no need for a regulation,” Newton said. “Some vehicles sound an alert if a key fob is removed from the vehicle while it is still on. Some automatically shift into park when a door opens. And some do shut off the engine after a period of time.”
NHTSA made a video on the proper way to operate vehicles with keyless ignition systems and tips to prevent dangerous situations that the public can view on YouTube and on NHTSA’s website.
NHTSA issued a statement to the USA TODAY Network’s Detroit Free Press: “NHTSA prioritizes safety in its ongoing review of keyless ignition systems, including concerns such as carbon monoxide poisoning and vehicle rollaway. A number of vehicle manufacturers now include auto shutoff systems in their vehicles, and NHTSA is evaluating those safety features and technological advances to inform future actions. “
General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and Ford Motor have safety technology on some or most of their later model vehicles.
GM implemented “Extended Parking” in the 2013 model year and “Electronic Precision Shift” in 2017 models, the company said. The technologies shut off the vehicle after a certain period of unattended idling and automatically shift the vehicle into park if a driver shuts the engine off while drive or reverse is still engaged.
GM’s “Extended Parking” is available on all 2019 model year models with keyless ignition, GM said. For most model year 2019 Chevrolet and all model year 2019 Buick, GMC and Cadillac models, the vehicle will automatically shut down in park at 20 minutes without the fob present and one hour with the fob in the vehicle.
Likewise, Ford began putting automatic engine shutoff safety features on its cars in 2013, a Ford spokeswoman said. Many Ford and Lincoln vehicles equipped with a keyless ignition have a feature that automatically shuts down the engine after 30 minutes of inactivity whether the key fob is inside or outside of the vehicle.
Ford also added the automatic “Return to Park” feature, first in the 2013 Lincoln MKZ sedan and now on the 2017 Ford Fusion sedan. Return to Park technology will automatically shift the car into park when a driver turns the vehicle off or opens the driver’s side door with their safety belt unlatched and the vehicle stationary, or has their safety belt is unlatched with the driver’s door open and the vehicle stationary.
Ford spokeswoman Rachel McCleery said the company supports congressional action.
A spokesman for Fiat Chrysler said it has multiple vehicles with auto-park and/or “auto-brake securement strategies” and the company works with NHTSA on this issue.
Fish’s daughter said if the industry has the means to prevent even one more death in a keyless car why not use it?
“I know exactly what the comments to my dad’s story will say: ‘It’s Darwin’s law,'” said Etlinger.
“Playing devil’s advocate, maybe you can say my dad was too dumb to make it, but there’s a reason for safety standards on cars and with key cars, there is a reason that the car must be in park before you can turn the car off and remove the key,” said Etlinger.
Etlinger said the keyless ignition turns that established safety regulation “on its head by allowing a driver to walk away with a key in hand while the car is not in park.”
She understands the hazards if carmakers allow a car to shut off whenever the fob goes out of range, but the PARK IT Act specifically requires that the sensors indicate that the driver’s seat is unoccupied for the auto-shutoff to engage, Etlinger said.
Safety expert Fennell said the law is needed because most people believe “our brains work better than they really do” and any environmental sound including a garage door closing could mask a quiet engine still running or other warning cues.
Take Gerald Zitser. On June 28, 2012, Zitser parked his 2006 keyless Toyota Avalon in his garage in Boynton Beach, Florida.
Zitser had owned the car for six years and was familiar with the push-button ignition and the process to turn it off. Yet that morning he was in a rush to put away his groceries, make lunch and catch his beloved New York Yankees on TV, said his daughter Suzi Zitser. In his haste, he thought the car was off, but it was not.
Suzi grew increasingly worried when her dad didn’t pick up the phone all day. That evening, a neighborhood security guard found her 86-year-old father in his recliner, overcome by carbon monoxide.
“My sister saw them bring my father’s body out in a body bag. They found the key fob in his shirt pocket,” said Suzi, as tears still grip her all these years later. “That was the mistake that people with a keyless car make, they’re under the impression that that key is similar to a regular keyed car.”
But with a fob, the key is no longer a physical object despite a person having a fob to hold, said Kane. The real key is an invisible code that is transmitted via radio waves to and from the fob and the vehicle’s ignition module, Kane said.
So while the fob must be in the car to start the engine, it plays no role in turning off the car the way a traditional metal key does.
“Your car can run without the fob in it,” said Kane. “We’ve seen police reports where the police officer doesn’t realize that and thinks if he walks further away from the car it’ll shut off. It will not.”
The only way to ensure the car is off is to shift the car into “park,” push the start/stop button, then open the driver side door, said Kane. Only then is that invisible code, or “key,” removed from the ignition.
In the case of rollaway accidents, Kane said many vehicles allow the driver to shut off the engine without shifting into park.
“With keyless ignitions turning the engine off when the shifter is not in park doesn’t mean that the vehicle is off – the engine state and the vehicle ignition state are two different things,” said Kane. “You can turn the engine off, but the car is not in park, and exit with the fob, but the (electronic) key will remain in the vehicle.”
The car can roll and, typically, a driver attempts to open the door and get back into the vehicle or attempts to stop it from rolling and they get knocked over, said Kane.
The most well-known example was in 2016 when Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin, 27, was crushed to death by his Jeep Grand Cherokee in his driveway.
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Leaders in keyless deaths
Of the 37 carbon monoxide keyless-related car deaths, seven occurred in Palm Beach County, Florida, Kane said.
So in 2016, the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office crafted a public service announcement warning people of the dangers of keyless-related car deaths.
“We thought it was important to do that to raise awareness,” said Teri Barbera, spokeswoman for the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office.
Florida tops the states for the most keyless car carbon monoxide deaths, and Toyota tops the brands, accounting for 17 of the 37 deaths, said Kane.
Michael and Jamie Sobik from Miramar Beach, Florida, returned home one night in October 2015 and parked their 2014 Lexus IS 350 sedan in their attached garage. The smart key failed to shut off the engine, the couple said in a lawsuit they filed against Toyota in 2017.
Neither Michael nor Jamie, who were 40 and 35 years old, respectively, at the time, could hear the car’s quiet engine running. It provided no sounds or cues either, the lawsuit said.
The car ran for six hours before Michael Sobik awoke nauseated. He and Jamie Sobik, who was pregnant at the time, were too disoriented to walk, so they crawled out of the house.
They survived, but both have severe brain damage. Their baby was born and is healthy, said their lawyer Melton, but, “It all gets back to the key fob and the push-button transmission.”
In response to the Sobik case and keyless ignition related deaths, Toyota issued a statement saying safety and security 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.”
It said Toyota’s 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.” That feature has been on the keyless cars since 2003 and it includes a two-step alert to notify the driver that the engine is running and requests engine to be turned off.
On Thursday, Toyota said most of its 2020 model year vehicles will come with automatic engine shutoff and an enhanced audible and visual warning.
Kane tweeted Thursday that Toyota’s claim to safety leadership comes “13 years after first death and 7 years after Ford & GM” installed the technology in their keyless cars.
For him and the families of some of the victims, the PARK IT bill would leave no room for error and is a sensible step to stopping future death or injury.
“It provides some level of comfort that this isn’t going to happen again,” said Etlinger. “People ask me if we’re going to sue Toyota. I hate litigation because no matter who you sue, it won’t bring him back and it often causes more stress. But this bill is something that can actually help.”
Follow Detroit Free Press reporter Jamie L. LaReau on Twitter @jlareauan.