NHTSA Snuffs Carbon Monoxide Safeguards

Washington, DC, Sept. 5, 2019 — More than 1,500 people die annually from motor vehicle-related carbon monoxide poisoning, yet the nation’s transportation safety watchdog has taken no preventative actions, according to documents obtained through a lawsuit brought by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  Compounding its inaction, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has blocked efforts to require carbon monoxide detectors in cars with keyless ignitions, the latest source of CO-induced deaths and injuries.

Millions of cars on U.S. roads are equipped with keyless ignition systems that allow cars to continue running even after the fob is removed, resulting in many accidental poisonings.  In addition, vehicles venting CO into passenger compartments have been the cause of major recalls.

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In 2018 without explanation, NHTSA rejected a PEER petition for rule-making to require CO detectors in all new gas-powered motor vehicles and built-in engine cut-offs when the gas reaches dangerous levels inside a vehicle.  Last fall, PEER submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking both an explanation for this denial and to learn the outcome of other steps the agency promised to take. In January, PEER filed suit to compel production.

Confronted in court, NHTSA says it has no responsive records it is willing to release. In an email to PEER, the Assistant U.S. Attorney, Diana Valdivia, representing the agency indicates –

  • It is withholding its explanation for denying the PEER petition “as deliberative”;
  • It never completed a 2016 review of dangers from keyless ignitions in automobiles; and
  • It has no records reflecting its response to a similar regulation proposed in 2011 by the Society of Automotive Engineers or its announced 2013-14 investigation of seven automakers concerning their safety features for keyless vehicles.

“NHTSA will not explain why it has done nothing for the past decade to prevent vehicular carbon monoxide deaths and injuries,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse. “From these records, NHTSA can best be described as a supremely sleepy safety sentinel.”

A number of U.S. Senators have also pressed NHTSA for action on the issue and received this reply:

“NHTSA is evaluating a range of options to determine the best path forward to address safety concerns related to keyless ignitions…NHTSA is also evaluating the best ways to quantify the safety problem as it is difficult to accurately obtain reliable data because these cases fall outside NHTSA’s normal data acquisition channels.”

“Our lawsuit reveals that even this bland response to Congress is simply not true,” added Whitehouse, noting that absent seven years-old fatality reports, the NHTSA produced no evidence of any effort to collect data, let alone evaluate options.  “While carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, its mounting body count is hard to overlook.”

See NHTSA email admission of no records

Look at PEER lawsuit

Read NHTSA assurance to Senators

View NHTSA “safercar” website