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Averting Thousands of Vehicle Exhaust Deaths

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Averting Thousands of Vehicle Exhaust Deaths

Carbon Monoxide Detectors Most Cost-Effective Auto Safety Measure Since Seat Belt

Washington, DC — Thousands of deaths and serious injuries could be prevented each year if vehicles with gasoline engines were equipped with carbon monoxide detectors, according to a rulemaking petition filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. During the past 25 years, NHTSA has previously rejected calls – most recently a decade ago – to address the multifaceted dangers of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.

More than 1,500 people die each year from CO poisoning related to motor vehicles, including suicides. Tens of thousands are also injured, many permanently. Precisely because CO is odorless and colorless, drivers and passengers are vulnerable to exposure, even in lethal amounts, due to factors, such as –

  • Poor ventilation design. Pending litigation charges that as many as 750,000 late-model sports utility vehicles funnel exhaust fumes containing deadly CO levels into the passenger cabin. Of special concern is that passengers in the rear of the vehicles, often children, are exposed to the higher levels of unventilated CO;
  • As many as five million cars on U.S. roads are equipped with what another class action lawsuit alleges are defective keyless ignition systems which allow cars to continue to run even after the keyless fob is no longer located in the car, resulting in several deaths; and
  • Weather events, such as heavy snow storms, cause many CO vehicular deaths. One January 2016 storm led to at least five deaths in three incidents where people were unaware that their exhaust pipes were clogged with snow.

PEER is urging the NHTSA to require installation of CO detectors in all gasoline powered vehicles. When dangerous levels of CO are detected, drivers would be warned to immediately open their windows; if the vehicle is not moving the CO warning would automatically shut the engine off. The cost of such systems have fallen to the point where they would cost only a few dollars to install.

“Carbon monoxide detectors may be the most cost-effective safety device since the seat belt,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that the NHTSA should also look at the role CO poisoning plays in drowsy driving, the second leading cause of traffic accidents behind impaired driving.
“Requiring carbon monoxide detectors in gas powered vehicles would save thousands of lives.”

In addition to unintentional exposures, the overwhelming majority of CO-related suicides are from motor vehicle exhaust. Most of those who escape suicidal death do not try again, meaning that many more lives could be saved by CO-engine shut-offs.

“CO detectors are reliable and far less expensive than other auto-safety measures that NHTSA has approved,” added Ruch, noting that in the period between 2013 and 2015, NHTSA issued CO-related recalls for nearly 100,000 passenger vehicles. “Rather than persisting in its piecemeal approach, NHTSA needs to take a comprehensive look at vehicular carbon monoxide.”

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Read the PEER rulemaking petition

See background on steps to prevent vehicular CO poisoning

View 2005 NHTSA rejection