Few deaths elicit more pity than the insidious, highly preventable deaths of a Passaic woman and her two young children last January as they struggled to stay warm inside a parked automobile while its engine continued to run.
As Sashalynn Rosa’s husband shoveled snow around them, snow plugged the exhaust. When lethal carbon monoxide poured into the automobile, the 23-year-old mother, her 3-year-old daughter Saniyah, and her 1-year-old baby Messiah all passed away. Thousands of dollars were donated to a funeral website within hours, and Governor Christie has signed a bill forcing the Motor Vehicle Commission to emphasize carbon monoxide concerns in its driver testing and training books as winter approaches this week.
However, advocates for driver safety, such as Janette Fennel, have voiced mixed feelings about the project.
“Anything that raises awareness of a lethal threat like this is a wonderful step,” said Fennel, the founder of the Kids & Cars road-safety organization in Philadelphia. “However, how can you teach someone not to forget to turn off the car’s ignition?”
Fennel understands better than others the human frailties of ignorance and carelessness that lead to carbon monoxide poisoning’s devastating automotive toll. According to Kids & Cars (kidsandcars.org), clogged tailpipes have resulted in 30 deaths and 15 major illnesses, accounting for nearly 80% of all deaths and illnesses since 2000. Fennel’s group, on the other hand, is concentrating its efforts on a much newer phenomenon: push-button keyless ignition, which has claimed the lives of 20 people and caused 45 major illnesses since its introduction in 2003.
Car keys have become practically useless as a result of this technology, as nearly all cars now have engines that start and shut off with the push of a button.
“Today’s engines run so quietly that it’s easy to forget that vehicles are still running while they’re parked,” Fennel observed.
Carbon monoxide gases are colorless, odorless, and tasteless, and they can quietly escape from a garage and enter other rooms of a house or apartment building. They replace oxygen in the body’s vital red blood cells when breathed in. As a New York couple in 2009, a North Carolina college professor in 2012, and a Florida grandma last year discovered, the harm they do can result in chronic tissue damage, long-term debilitation, and death.
Carbon monoxide deaths have been reported in New Jersey, including two deaths in a car in Hackensack last March. Three guys died in Paterson under similar circumstances in three separate instances in February 2003. Faulty or blocked tailpipes were blamed, but no keyless ignitions were involved in any of the instances.
The Mayo Clinic in Baltimore has some prevention advice.
Carbon monoxide detectors should be placed near all sleeping places, and batteries should be checked twice a year.
When starting the car, always open the garage door and never leave it running.
Never heat your home with a gas stove or oven, and never operate a generator in the basement or garage.
Maintain proper ventilation for all fuel-burning equipment and engines.
Readers are furious.
Regardless, it’s a threat that irritates Road Warrior readers.
Norman Wattman of River Vale wrote, “A simple electronic switch should be able to shut down the engine.”
Brian Gunther, an Ocean County mechanic, explained, “My Ford Fusion lets me know [the car is operating] with two horn beeps and flashing lights.” “Why can’t other automobile companies follow suit?”
Although most current cars include auditory systems to warn drivers when they fail to press the off-button, they fall short of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s suggested level of 85 decibels. Many of the casualties have been older retirees with hearing loss, as numerous readers have pointed out.
“It’s difficult to modify an old routine when you’ve been driving for 40 or 50 years,” Fennel remarked. “However, even if a driver’s hearing is good, people of all ages can’t always hear the warnings over the noise of an automatic garage door closing.”
Do drivers pay attention to the warnings on their vehicles?
Ignition warning tones are so ingrained in modern beeps, rings, and chirps in cars and phones that “we tend to ignore them,” as one Upper Saddle River reader put it.
The NHTSA recommendation of 85 decibels, around the sound level of a piercing smoke alarm, would definitely be enough. However, Nissan considers that 85 decibels are “too high and may interfere with the driver responding to the alert.”
In December 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proclaimed keyless vehicles to be an “obvious safety hazard” that could be solved with a $500 million industry commitment. Carmakers, though, who are already facing lawsuits over airbags and brakes, have resisted. The federal agency’s self-imposed February deadline for implementing new keyless-ignition guidelines was missed.
What options do we have?
One suggestion it was exploring ways to have the engine turn off as soon as the driver exited the vehicle and pocketed the electronic controller or fob. However, regulators appeared to be stymied by one question:
How soon do you think it will be?
Is it true that lethal carbon monoxide may fill a home or apartment building in half an hour? Is it really an hour? Perhaps ten minutes?
Whatever the answer is, the NHTSA’s decision is expected to affect just new automobiles, as current ignition systems aren’t generally regarded broken or defective, unlike recalled equipment.
Meanwhile, class-action lawsuits in states ranging from Florida to California are making their way through the courts. One Golden State lawsuit seeks an injunction requiring ten keyless car manufacturers to implement automatic engine shut-offs, citing 13 deaths.
Although there have been no fatalities in New Jersey as a result of keyless ignitions, carbon monoxide poisonings do occur.
Aside from the deaths in Passaic and Hackensack this year, a boy died in his Linden home in May, and two people were killed and 12 others were wounded when a Passaic building was engulfed by carbon monoxide fumes in December 2014. On Christmas Day 2014, similar fumes in a Garfield home sent four people to the hospital. Four workers in a Paterson dry-cleaning store were hospitalized a week later after being overcome by carbon monoxide. When a senior-citizen complex in Pequannock was inundated with lethal gas in 2013, about 150 people were evacuated.
In these occurrences, faulty equipment such as heaters, ventilators, and generators was blamed. When afflicted, doctors advise victims to seek fresh air and medical assistance as soon as possible.
Dr. John LoCurto, the director of emergency services at Hackensack University Medical Center, stated very few patients make it to emergency rooms.
“They’re usually dead before they get here,” LoCurto said.