I-Team: Preventing rollaway crashes with safety features, legislation

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SEEKONK, Mass. (WWLP) – Push to start ignitions are now the norm in cars, but safety advocates are warning these come with the potential danger of a rollaway crash. The 22News I-Team got a first hand look at how a rollaway crash could happen.

A rollaway crash usually happens when a driver thinks the car is in park and either they or a passenger exits the vehicle and it starts to roll away.

In 2008, push-to-start was standard on 11 percent of the vehicles sold in the U.S. By 2018, it was standard on 62 percent of vehicles sold.

“You have about one second to alert this driver to this impending hazard before they step out of the vehicle,” explained Sean Kane, the president of Safety Research & Strategies, Inc.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said there are about 142 deaths and 2,000 people injured in rollaway crashes each year throughout the country. According to Springfield Police Department spokesman Ryan Walsh, back in 2019, a woman that didn’t have her car in park on Whiting Street and she went to get groceries out of the trunk. The car was still in reverse. She wasn’t able to get out of the way in time and was hurt in a rollaway crash, but did survive. Her car had push-to-start ignition.

“When that happens, your brain is thinking ‘okay the car’s not moving, I’m getting out, I’ve got my key, what could be wrong?” Kane said. He told the 22News I-Team the keyless ignition can be confusing for people.

“We’re human, we make mistakes,” Kane said. “We get into situations where you could lose precise awareness of a lot of things.”

Safety Features

Kane said manufacturers need to install technology that puts a car into park automatically if a driver exits a vehicle. Some cars have this feature already, but many do not.

Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey has been pushing for legislation to force the auto industry to add safety features for years with the “Park It Act.” This would require all car manufacturers to install technology to prevent these rollaway accidents.

In a statement to the 22News I-Team Markey said, “The DOT must ensure that novel transportation technologies help eradicate the auto safety challenges of the 20th century, not pose additional dangers in the 21st century. With deaths attributable to keyless ignitions mounting, it’s time to set safety standards to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning and vehicle rollaways. That’s why I cosponsored the PARK IT Act and why I’m proud that a version of this legislation was included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate earlier this year. I am committed to advancing this full legislation and ending these preventable tragedies.”

Kane explained that safety technology is already in most cars.

“Modern vehicles today have virtually every piece of equipment already on them to prevent the very hazard that’s been created by all these kinds of things. Yet, it’s not being used consistently to protect drivers,” he said. “Most modern cars already have all of the hardware and all of the sensors to prevent the rollaways that are occurring. They simply need to add some small pieces of software to make that work.”

The NHTSA said “NHTSA continues to monitor keyless ignition systems, including automatic shutoffs and vehicle rollaway. A number of vehicle manufacturers now include auto shutoff systems in their vehicles, and NHTSA is evaluating those safety features to inform future actions.”

The NHTSA urges vehicle owners to report any potential defect online or by calling 1-888-327-4236.

In 2019, Toyota announced plans to add automatic engine shut off and automatic park features to most Model Year 2020 vehicles.

Infrastructure Bill

There is a second proponent to the Park It Act that has made it into the bi-partisan Infrastructure Bill. It would mandate that the NHTSA put in place a regulation to have automatic engine shut down. This would prevent carbon monoxide poisoning by automatically turning off a car left unintentionally running for an extended period of time.

As for rollaway crash legislation in the Infrastructure Bill, the NHTSA must study the feasibility of rollaway prevention measures and report back to Congress within one year.

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