Ed Markey

Rollaway Crash Victims' Families, Lawmakers Push for New Auto Safety Features

NBC Universal, Inc.

Safety advocates and lawmakers are joining the families of rollaway crash victims to push for new safety features on vehicles with keyless ignition systems.

"She was really the light of our whole family, she's been the perfect mom, the perfect grandma," said Karl Hofer of New Canaan, Connecticut.

Hofer is talking about his mother, Kathleen, who was killed in a tragic rollaway crash in March of 2018 in the driveway of his home.

"She'd gotten back from taking my youngest two kids to day care and preschool, had gotten back and had exited the vehicle without realizing … the car was left in drive," said Hofer. "The car slipped backwards after she had gotten out and she was trapped underneath."

Hofer's vehicle had a push-button ignition, and police reports say the gear shift was in drive, but the engine was off.

Surveillance video from other deadly rollaway crashes across the country shows how quickly things can go wrong — victims getting run over by their own cars.

Sean Kane is a vehicle safety expert with Safety, Research & Strategies, Inc. He has been sounding the alarm about rollaways since the introduction of keyless vehicles and electronic gear shifters, which he says can be confusing to drivers.

"The keyless ignition completely changed the way the driver interfaces with the car," said Kane. "If you think about when you have a metal key and you have that metal key in your hand, you know two things about the state of that vehicle. You know that the transmission must be in park and you know that the engine must be off. If you have a key fob and a keyless ignition car, and you have that key fob in your hand, neither one of those things may be true."

Kane says manufacturers need to install technology that puts a car into park if a driver exits a vehicle.

"Most cars will send a chime or alert that says 'Vehicle not in park,'" said Kane. "Well, that same signal that can activate a light that tells you something that you're not going to see can be used to activate a feature in a car to prevent it from rolling. It's a simple software fix."

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., have been pushing for legislation to force the auto industry to fix the problem for years — with the "Park It Act."

"What this Park It Act will do is essentially require the federal agency and automakers to take the simple step to enable the automobile to go into park to shut off the engine rather than leaving it on or in park," Blumenthal said. "When a consumer exits the car, it should be immobilized."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a statement that it "continues an ongoing review of 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 Hofer family wants to raise awareness of the issue and is suing the manufacturer of the vehicle their mom was driving.

"We think it was preventable, and as car technology changed, there weren't adequate safety measures to prevent this," said Hofer. "People make mistakes and they shouldn't have to pay for them with their lives."

Experts say one thing you can do to prevent a rollaway situation is to get into the habit of setting the parking brake before getting out of your car, and never to try to stop or jump into a moving vehicle.

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