EDITOR’S NOTE: Five days after publication of this article Toyota announced its plans to add auto shutoff and auto park features for 2020 models to prevent CO deaths and rollaways – 13 years after first death and 7 years after Ford and GM.
Last month, Dr. Sherry Hood Penney, 81, and Dr. James Livingston, 88, died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The couple had inadvertently left their keyless ignition 2017 Toyota Avalon running in the attached garage of their Sarasota condo. The car ran until it was out of gas and its battery died.
Penney and Livingston were distinguished in life – Dr. Penney’s resume included glass-ceiling shattering stints as interim president at SUNY Plattsburgh, the first woman at SUNY to serve as vice chancellor of academic programs, policy and planning at SUNY, and interim president of the UMass system. Dr. Livingston was a retired MIT professor, a research physicist at General Electric, and a global expert on magnets.
They died of indifference.
Toyota has the most keyless ignition carbon monoxide deaths. It had the first publicly acknowledged deaths and, now the most recent deaths. Yet, Toyota has done nothing to implement a simple, inexpensive software solution that some other major automakers introduced seven years ago.
No Manufacturer Knows the CO Keyless Ignition Hazard Better Than Toyota
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.
Carbon monoxide deaths associated with keyless ignition vehicles represent the tip of the safety problem. The vast majority of keyless ignition vehicle owners have accidentally left their engines running at one time or another, but most incidents result in a metaphorical knock to the head – “I can’t believe I didn’t turn off my engine!” moment. In order for his error to cause injury and the death, the vehicle must be parked in an enclosed space, adjacent to an occupied living space, it must have a full, or nearly full, tank of gas, and there must be a stretch of time when interruptions from others outside the home are unlikely.
Since these deaths and injuries are not tracked in any methodical way, and because not all keyless ignition carbon monoxide deaths make the news, it is likely that there are more deaths and injuries than are publicly known.
The first known Toyota keyless CO deaths occurred in April 2006, David Colter, 89, and his 70-year-old wife Jeanette, of Port St. Lucie, Florida, were found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in their home, after leaving their 2006 keyless ignition Avalon running. According to their son-in-law, Jeanette Colter had apparently already had one incident in which she left her Toyota running in a parking lot; and family members warned her about forgetting to turn off the car with the quiet-running engine.
“That car was so quiet, it was hard to tell if it was running or not,” Terry Wilson said in a news article. “You don’t even need a key to start it. You just push a button to turn it off and on.”
Three years later, Mary Rivera, a former college professor, left her Lexus ES 350 idling in a garage beneath her homes. Her 79-year-old partner, Ernest Codelia Jr., died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Rivera survived, but suffered permanent brain damage. The incident hit the news in November 2010, when the victims filed a civil lawsuit against Toyota. By then, there was another Toyota keyless ignition death and injury. In August of that year, 29 year-old Chasity Glisson of Boca Raton, Florida, parked her Lexus IS250 in garage to make room for boyfriend’s vehicle, and forgot to turn off the engine. She later collapsed in bathroom on the 3rd floor, where her boyfriend, Timothy Maddock, found her, and passed out himself. The pair was found the next day; Glisson died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Maddock was critically injured and hospitalized for ten days. An investigation revealed that the carbon monoxide came from the Lexus in the garage, which Glisson inadvertently left running.
In 2010, Safety Research & Strategies reached out to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s chief counsel’s office and rulemaking engineers to alert the agency to the rollaway and carbon monoxide hazards of keyless ignitions.
In 2011, NHTSA raised the profile of Toyota incidents in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to amend Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114, which regulates key systems. In a half-baked attempt to address the carbon monoxide hazard, the agency proposed mandating louder warnings. In explaining its rationale, the NPRM specifically made examples of the Glisson incident and a consumer complaint involving a close call from a 2007 Lexus LS460 owner, who inadvertently left his vehicle running in his garage, but was awakened at 2 a.m. by a carbon monoxide detector, and averted serious injury. The rulemaking was roundly criticized by industry and advocates alike, but for different reasons. Industry was opposed to the louder warnings solution for fear of annoying customers, chided the agency for proposing a rule based on consumer complaints, but also tried to block it from conducting some human factors research that would serve as the basis for rulemaking. Consumer advocates argued that auditory warnings were much less effective than a simple automatic engine idle shutdown mechanism and the agency had no data to support the effectiveness of the proposed audible alert. (NHTSA has not advanced the rulemaking since.)
Since then, Toyota owners have suffered injuries and fatalities from carbon monoxide poisoning at regular intervals. In the first five months of 2019, there have been three known deaths caused by Toyota keyless ignition vehicles.
In February, Russell Fish, a 68-year retired member of the U.S. Army, and the National Security Administration from Hanover, Pennsylvania, and the family dog, Angel, died when Fish parked his wife’s 2011 keyless ignition Toyota 4Runner in their garage and inadvertently left the engine running. As Fish retired to his bedroom, the vehicle continued to run for nine hours until the temperature in the garage rose to levels high enough to explode the aerosol paint and insecticide cans on the garage shelves; the dash warped and the grill of the vehicle melted; and Fish slipped into death from carbon monoxide poisoning. He was found the next day by the family’s pastor, who they had check on Fish when he didn’t answer his phone.
“My research has uncovered this has been a known issue for some length of time and Toyota has had (and failed to take) the opportunity to do the right thing by correcting it,” says Fish’s oldest son, Nathaniel Fish of Phoenix, AZ. “They have failed to ensure that no other parent has to sit their children down as they’re getting ready for a party and tell them that the last time they saw their pappy was the last time; no pastor will need to find the body of one of his parishioners lying in bed in a stiflingly hot house filled with exhaust; no wife will need to get that call, while visiting grandkids, that her husband and life partner won’t be there to embrace her and welcome her home when she returns; no grandson will have his senior trip forever marred by the memory of receiving the startling news that his pappy had died from something that could have been prevented.”
Older Drivers, Ingrained Habits
Drivers of every age can and do inadvertently leave keyless ignition vehicles running.
The design makes it easy to do. In a keyless ignition system, the key is no longer a physical object. It is an invisible code, transmitted via radio waves to and from the plastic fob and the ignition module in the vehicle. The fob must be in the vehicle to start the engine – much like a traditional metal key, but unlike a metal key, it plays no role in turning off the engine. Driver’s must execute series of actions – shift the vehicle’s transmission into PARK, push the START/STOP button and open the driver’s door, to fully remove the “key” from the ignition. Drivers exiting their vehicle with the keyless ignition fob – which manufacturers repeatedly call the “key” – believe that because they have the “key” the engine is not running. And because the fob is a proximity device that can only start the vehicle when it’s inside of the occupant compartment, many drivers believe the reverse is true – the car won’t continue to run – and if it did it would time out, like other features in vehicles including the radio.
With a traditional metal key, a driv er cannot remove the key from the ignition without shifting the transmission into PARK and turning off the engine. Thus, the presence of the physical key outside of the vehicle provides drivers with the status of the vehicle – the engine is off, the transmission is locked in PARK – it’s a strong visual and tactile reminder. If your key was in your pocket or hanging from a hook in your kitchen, there is no way the engine could still be running or the transmission in a gear other than PARK. Those possibilities had been engineered out by regulation. That is not the case with a key fob. You could be miles away with the fob in your hand, and your vehicle could be idling away or in still in DRIVE.
It’s obvious that manufacturers conducted no human factors testing to see how drivers would perceive the new system, and what human errors the design itself would induce, because automakers did next to nothing to transition drivers to this radical shift in their relationship with the new-fangled “key.” Rather, manufacturers exacerbated the propensity for error by telling vehicle owners that the plastic fob was the key, branding their systems with names like “Smart Key” or “Intelligent Key” and depicting the fob in owners’ manuals and on the instrument panel as the “key.” They relied on auditory and visual warnings that were often never heard or seen by the driver, or, in the former case, using tones that were like other in-vehicle telltales that failed to distinguish the hazard and status of the key and lasted only seconds.
Combine these factors with today’s nearly silent engines and dashboards, headlights, radios and other electrical accessories that stay enabled for a short period after turning off the vehicle, and it is now super-easy to leave a vehicle running.
Now let’s suppose that you used a traditional metal key for the vast majority of your decades as a driver. Your key behaviors are pretty ingrained. Throw in some hearing loss and background noise, like a garage door going down to further mask that quiet engine and what are the odds you might make an error?
Toyota Sure Loves the Mature Market’s Money
The Livingston/Penney vehicle was a 2017 Toyota Avalon, intentionally purchased, according to Mrs. Livingston’s son Michael, because “it was such a safe car.” Safety, along with quality has long been key to Toyota’s brand, and the Avalon, its full-sized sedan has long been a favorite of older car buyers.
Eight of the Toyota CO deaths occurred in five incidents involving an Avalon.
In 2005, the year before the Colters died, “the median age of the Avalon buyer was just under 60, an age that used to signal that a consumer group – and the brand they were buying – had one foot in the grave,” according to a story published in Ward’s Auto.
Rather than disdain the aged buyer, Toyota embraced them. That same story quoted Don Esmond, Toyota Motor Sales senior vice president and general manager:
“That’s all changed now, says Esmond. “While the goal of most auto manufacturers these days is to lower the median age of their buyers as much as possible, we are quite content with the mature age profile of the Avalon buyer. To be honest, I don’t think I would have been comfortable with that number, when we launched Avalon, 10 years ago.”
Over the last 14 years, the average age of an Avalon buyer went up. Today’s “average Avalon buyer today is 66 years old, a few years older than the segment average,” according to a Forbes story published in April 2018. But, again, Toyota is bullish on older buyers. While many industry observers have written the obituary of the full-sized sedan, noting that younger buyers favor SUV crossovers, the April 2018 Forbes story marvels at Toyota’s counter-punch in unveiling a new 2019 Avalon: “As sales in the segment are sinking, several other automakers are discontinuing their big sedans and the average large car buyer is 64 and not getting any younger. Thanks to the huge baby boom populace, it will be some time yet before the market for big sedans disappears. Toyota is betting that with the redesigned it can keep its core Avalon audience happy and attract buyers who previously favored other models.”
And Toyota is supposed to be making its vehicles more age-friendly via the partnership between Toyota’s Collaborative Safety Research Center and the MIT AgeLab, which studies things like “understanding how drivers respond to the increasing complexity of the modern operating environment.”
Apparently, that effort doesn’t extend to preventing carbon monoxide deaths its keyless ignition system vehicles.
Nathaniel Fish says part of his disappointment in Toyota is the irony of its marketing keyless ignition systems to older consumers.
“In fact, in show rooms they actively market this push button technology as a feature for older drivers who might struggle with inserting a key and turning it…to a demographic that is already conditioned through literally decades of driving cars that require a key to both turn their vehicle on and turn their vehicle off, a demographic that is often suffering hearing loss and cannot hear the increasingly quiet engines still running as they exit their vehicle while the noisy garage door is closing, to think of their “key fob” as just an easier key, without which they cannot start their car,” he says. “And so, reasonably, they view this fob as a key and treat it as such when they take it with them as they leave their vehicle, believing the vehicle cannot run without the ‘key fob’ nearby
It Will Take an Act of Congress
In February, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced the Protecting Americans from the Risks of Keyless Ignition Technology (PARK IT) Act, which would require NHTSA to amend and finalize the 2011 proposed rulemaking a rule that vehicles automatically shut off after a period of time to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, and a rule that sets a performance standard to prevent rollaway.
Blumenthal’s bill (S.543) now idles in the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, awaiting a Republican sponsor before Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) will advance it. Meanwhile, U.S. Representatives Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Darren Soto (R-Fla.), Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced a House version (HR.3145) of the PARK IT Act yesterday.
Specifically, to prevent rollaway the PARK IT Act would require the Secretary of Transportation, within two years of enactment, to issue a final rule requiring manufacturers to install technology in motor vehicles equipped with keyless ignition devices and automatic transmissions to prevent movement of the motor vehicle if the transmission of the motor vehicle is not in the park setting; the motor vehicle speed is low enough to establish that it is stationary; the driver’s door is open and driver’s seat belt is unbuckled; and the service brake of the motor vehicle is not engaged. This is the same algorithm Fiat-Chrysler Automotive employed when it recalled Jeeps and other Chrysler vehicles to add updated software to prevent rollaway.
“Basic safety standards and technology can protect owners of keyless ignition cars from the threat posed by carbon monoxide poisoning and rollaways. NHTSA’s failure to act is indefensible and has tragic and fatal consequences. Congress must move swiftly to pass the PARK IT Act and compel NHTSA to do its job,” said Senator Blumenthal.
Accompanying Blumenthal at his April announcement in Hartford, was Suzanne Zitser. In January 2013, Zitser, a Connecticut attorney, wrote a heartfelt letter about the carbon monoxide death of her 86-year-old father, Gerald Zitser, who owned a 2006 Avalon, to any entity she thought might be interested – the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety, and Toyota.
Gerald Zitser, she wrote, still rode his bicycle around town. He loved his Yankees and his Toyota. He took meticulous care of the car, and never missed an opportunity to follow his favorite baseball team. On June 28, 2012, Gerald Zitser did his shopping at the local Publix, parked his Avalon in his garage, and took his groceries into the house. He closed the garage door, but inadvertently failed to shut off his engine. Later that evening, Zitser settled into his recliner to listen to the Yankees take on the Chicago White Sox. He never woke up. (The key fob was found in his pocket.)
“Had there just been an automatic shut off system that kicked in after a preset time when their [sic] was no weight in the driver’s seat, much like the airbags in the passenger side, then this senseless, tragedy would have never occurred,” she wrote.
His youngest daughter received replies from the DOJ, the CPSC and Toyota. The latter response included a form letter assuring her “It is through correspondence such as yours that we are able to continue to improve our services.” She got a case number, and a second round of correspondence from Toyota in which the company expressed its willingness to conduct a vehicle inspection, “However, the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning from an internal combustion engine left running in an enclosed space has been well recognized for years in the automotive industry and by the public at large,” wrote Toyota Motor Sales’ Curtis Hamilton. “Unfortunate incidents such as the one that you describe in your letter, while rare, have also occurred with mechanical key systems and are not dependent on whether the vehicle involved uses a keyless ignition system.”
In March 2013, Zitser wrote back, observing that Toyota had missed her point entirely – an engine shutdown device could be implemented in any vehicle regardless of ignition type – and she encouraged Toyota to stand with safety:
“Again, I thought by sharing this tragedy with Toyota, it might take the opportunity to come up with a very simple solution that would prevent another accidental death – by installing an automatic shut off or kill switch. I hope you will reconsider this letter and not only be a leader in the automotive industry but equally important be in the forefront as far as the safety of the consumers of your product,” Zitser wrote.
By then, it was too late for Toyota to be the safety leader in using an automatic engine shutoff mechanism to prevent carbon monoxide deaths. In calendar 2012, both Ford and GM released MY 2013 keyless vehicles with automatic shut-off systems. And in 2017, Chrysler has added a similar feature to its 2018 Pacifica hybrid mini-van,
Zitser remains baffled that Toyota has refused to address the issue, given its long history of knowledge about the problem and the deadly consequences.
“I would never, ever, ever buy a Toyota,” she says. “The number of Toyota deaths in just this past year is staggering, and I just can’t believe they are not aware of what the other automakers have done to address this problem. I just don’t understand, first, why that the PARK IT bill hasn’t passed and second of all why Toyota has done nothing.”