Few deaths elicit more pity than the slow, avoidable deaths of a Passaic woman and her two young children in January while trying to stay warm inside a parked car with the engine still running.
As Sashalynn Rosa’s husband shoveled snow around them, snow obstructed the exhaust. When lethal carbon monoxide was dumped into the vehicle, the 23-year-old mother, her 3-year-old daughter Saniyah, and her 1-year-old son Messiah were all slain.
Thousands of dollars were donated. Governor Christie signed legislation mandating the Motor Vehicle Commission to incorporate carbon monoxide dangers in driver training and testing manuals as winter approaches this week.
However, driving safety advocates like Janette Fennel have mixed feelings about the idea.
“Anything that increases awareness of a potentially lethal issue like this is a wonderful step,” said Fennel, founder of the Philadelphia-based group Kids & Cars. “However, how can you train someone to remember to switch the car off?”
Fennel understands the human flaws of ignorance and stupidity that contribute to the devastating vehicular toll of carbon monoxide poisoning better than others.
According to Kids & Cars, clogged tailpipes have caused 30 deaths and 15 significant illnesses, accounting for about 80% of all deaths and diseases since 2000.
On the other hand, Fennel’s group is concentrating on a far more recent phenomenon: push-button keyless ignition, which has killed 20 people and caused 45 serious ailments since its introduction in 2003.
Automobile keys have practically become obsolete due to this technology.
“Today’s run so softly that it’s easy to forget that vehicles are still running even while parked,” Fennel observed.
Carbon monoxide gases have no color, flavor, or taste and can quietly enter adjacent rooms in a house or apartment complex.
As a New York couple discovered in 2009, a North Carolina college professor, and a Florida grandmother last year found, the harm they do can result in chronic tissue damage and death.
In New Jersey, carbon monoxide poisoning has been documented, with two people dying near a car in Hackensack. Three guys died in separate instances. Although no keyless ignitions were used in any of the events, tailpipes were implicated.
The Mayo Clinic in Baltimore provides several preventative measures.
Carbon monoxide detectors should be positioned near all sleeping places, and the batteries should be updated at least twice a year.
Always open the garage door before starting the car.
Maintain adequate ventilation for all fuel-burning equipment and engines.
“A simple switch should be able to turn off the engine,” wrote River Vale homeowner Norman Wattman.
“My Ford Fusion lets me know [it’s operating] with two horn noises and flashing lights,” Brian Gunther, an Ocean County mechanic, explained. “Why can’t other manufacturers follow suit?”
Although most current cars have auditory systems that warn drivers, they fall short of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s minimum threshold of 85 decibels.
As many readers have pointed out, several casualties were older retirees with hearing difficulties.
“When you’ve been driving, it’s difficult to modify a habit,” Fennel noted. “However, even if a driver has good hearing, persons of all ages may not always be able to hear the warnings above the noise of an automatic garage door closing.”
Do drivers pay heed to the warning lights?
The NHTSA recommendation, roughly the sound level of a siren, would suffice. According to Nissan, 85 dB is “too high and may interfere with the driver.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration labeled keyless vehicles an “obvious safety danger,” which could be addressed with a $500 million industry effort.
Automobile manufacturers, who are already facing airbag and brake litigation, have refused. The federal agency needed to meet its February target for implementing new keyless ignition standards.
What are our alternatives?
The engine should be turned off when the driver exits the car and pockets the electronic controller or key. Regulators, on the other hand, appeared to be hampered by one question:
When do you believe it will occur?
Is it accurate that a house or apartment complex may be filled with lethal carbon monoxide in less than a half hour? Is one hour truly one hour? Ten minutes?
Whatever the answer, the NHTSA’s judgment is likely to affect primarily new vehicles because current ignition systems, unlike recalled equipment, are not frequently identified as broken or defective.
Meanwhile, class-action actions are being launched in states from Florida to California.
In one action filed in California, an injunction is sought to compel eleven keyless car manufacturers to implement automatic engine shut-offs.
Aside from the deaths in Passaic, two people were killed, and 12 others were injured when carbon monoxide fumes engulfed a Passaic building in December 2014.
On Christmas Day 2014, four people were hospitalized due to similar fumes at a Garfield residence. Four workers at a Paterson dry-cleaning store were hospitalized a week after being overcome by carbon monoxide.
A senior citizen community in Pequannock, New Jersey, was filled with poisonous gas in 2013, causing 150 people to leave.
Doctors advise patients to get fresh air and medical attention as soon as possible.
According to Dr. John LoCurto, director of emergency services at Hackensack University Medical Center, just a tiny fraction of patients visit emergency rooms.
“They’re usually dead before they get there,” LoCurto explained.