NHTSA Inaction on Motor Vehicle Carbon Monoxide Draws a Lawsuit

Washington, DC, Jan. 3, 2019 — Thousands of people die or are seriously injured by carbon monoxide poisoning from their motor vehicles.  Despite promises to address this danger, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has yet to act or even explain why, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) under the Freedom of Information Act FOIA).

On January 28, 2018, NHTSA denied a petition from PEER to initiate a rulemaking to require the installation of carbon monoxide detectors in all new gas-powered motor vehicles and require the installation of built-in engine cut-off devices to prevent injuries and fatalities caused by carbon monoxide from motor vehicle exhaust.  The NHTSA denial letter offered no explanation, however.

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The PEER petition highlighted the role CO poisoning plays in drowsy driving, the second leading cause of traffic accidents behind impaired driving.  In addition, the petition points to the fact that –

  • Millions of cars on U.S. roads are equipped with keyless ignition systems that allow cars to continue to run even after the keyless fob is no longer located in the car, resulting in many deaths;
  • Pending litigation charges that as many as 750,000 late-model sports utility vehicles funnel exhaust fumes containing deadly CO levels into their cabins.  Of special concern is that passengers in the rear of the vehicles, often children, are exposed to high levels of unventilated CO. Between 2013 and 2015, NHTSA issued CO-related recalls for nearly 100,000 passenger vehicles; and
  • Weather events, such as heavy snow storms, cause many CO vehicular deaths when people are unaware that their exhaust pipes were clogged with snow.

The agency also did not respond to a PEER FOIA request this past October for an explanation of its denial and for information detailing –

  • The outcome of a 2016 NHTSA review of dangers from keyless ignitions in automobiles;
  • Why the NHTSA failed to forward a regulation proposed by the Society of Automotive Engineers in 2011 that keyless ignition vehicles warn drivers that cars are still running without the key fob in or near the car, and in some cases to shut the engine off automatically; and
  • The outcome of the 2013-14 NHTSA investigation of seven automakers concerning their safety features for keyless vehicles.

“The NHTSA owes the public an explanation for why it has failed to act to stem vehicular-related carbon monoxide deaths and injuries,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Carbon monoxide detectors may be the most cost-effective safety device since the seat belt.”

Altogether, more than 1,500 people die each year from CO poisoning related to motor vehicles, including suicides.  The large majority of CO-induced suicides are from motor vehicle exhaust.  Most of those who escape death do not try again, meaning that many more lives could be saved by CO-engine shut-offs.

The PEER lawsuit was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Read the PEER lawsuit

See the PEER petition

View cryptic NHTSA letter denying the petition

Look at the CO health toll from motor vehicles