His keyless car killed him as he slept

By Jamie L. Lareau - Detroit Free Press

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 Forerunner 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.

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 Motor North America announced this week that it will add automatic engine shutoff and automatic park technology to its 2020 model year lineup.

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, Calif., 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?”

General Motors, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Ford Motor Co. have safety technology on some or most of their later model vehicles.

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?

“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.

By Jamie L. Lareau

Detroit Free Press

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