An engine left running in a keyless car parked in a suburban garage is being blamed for the carbon monoxide poisoning of a couple in their Highland Park, Illinois, home last week.
What’s more, the incident reflects a trend that’s rising as drivers who are used to removing the key from their ignition walk away from vehicles that, because they run more quietly than ever before, are left to continue emitting potentially dangerous fumes.
“The good news is, most of the time people are not doing that in a closed environment,” Sean Kane, founder and president of the consumer watchdog group Safety Research & Strategies, tells PEOPLE. “That said, we have documented 15 deaths.”
He adds: “I’m pretty confident that is an undercount.”
Pasquale, 79, and Rina Fontanini, 75, died in their home early June 15, after lethal levels of carbon monoxide accumulated from their keyless 2013 Lincoln MKS left running in their garage, according to authorities and their son, the Chicago Tribune reports.
Cesare Fontanini, a lieutenant in the local fire department, arrived to find the garage door open and his father unconscious on the floor, he told the Tribune. After starting CPR and calling for an ambulance, he found his mother unconscious upstairs.
He said he believes his father was awakened by a carbon monoxide detecter, which was found downstairs, and then discovered the running vehicle and opened the garage door in an failed effort to clear the air before he was overcome.
“My dad made a valiant attempt but it was too late,” he said.
In March General Motors recalled more than 50,000 Chevrolet Volt plug-in cars over concerns that its quieter engine – which can run on battery power alone – can lead to similar risk of carbon monoxide poisoning if parked indoors and left running, reports USA Today.
The Massachusetts-based Safety Research & Strategies has urged design modifications such as automatic shut-offs that would reduce such risks. Its research notes that the electronic key systems contribute to vehicle thefts and rollaways as cars that are left running fail to automatically shift into “park,” in addition to the threat of carbon monoxide poisonings.
“Almost every person we talk to who has a keyless car has left a car running somewhere,” says Kane. “The manufacturers do understand they’ve got a problem. Unfortunately they have responded very slowly and not uniformly with a fix.”