A top official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was challenged at a Senate hearing Wednesday over the agency’s inaction to prevent carbon-monoxide deaths from keyless vehicles.
The official, Heidi King, speaking at a hearing on her nomination to head the agency, would not commit to following through on a regulation proposed in 2011 to address keyless-vehicle hazards. The rule would force automakers to install features that assertively alert motorists that a vehicle has not been turned off.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, pressed Ms. King to treat the lack of such features as a design flaw, to complete the rule-making process and to raise awareness about the problem. “It’s potentially fixed very easily, virtually costlessly,” he said.
But Ms. King, the agency’s deputy administrator since late last year, agreed only to call attention to the issue, indicating that she needed more information. She noted that “research performed to date suggests a number of causes” for carbon-monoxide poisoning in homes and that deaths in such cases were generally not reported to her agency.
“We act where appropriate and where the facts and the science take us,” Ms. King told members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
The issue was raised after The New York Times reported this week that at least 28 people had died of carbon-monoxide poisoning in their homes since 2006 after inadvertently leaving a keyless vehicle running in a garage. With quieter engines and the lost reflex of turning a mechanical key, some drivers — especially older ones — may neglect to notice that the car has not been shut off.
A leading standards group recommended regulatory steps, like requiring specified audible warnings, to alert drivers getting out of a car that the motor was still running. Such a warning would guard against theft and rollaways, as well as the gas hazard.
When the safety agency proposed such a rule in 2011, it said it could be carried out in new cars with a software modification that would cost the industry pennies per vehicle. General Motors has retrofitted some of its cars with such a feature, an adjustment requiring a half-hour of labor.
Mr. Blumenthal and another Democrat, Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, sent a letter to Ms. King on Monday demanding that the agency complete action on the rule and begin to enforce it.
“N.H.T.S.A.’s inaction clearly has produced fatal consequences,” the letter read. “This problem has not been solved by voluntary industry measures.”
The agency previously said that it relied on carmakers to install such safety features. Some have done so, but the Times investigation found that the measures varied from model to model and often failed to meet the guidelines of the standards group, the Society of Automotive Engineers.
Documents obtained by plaintiffs’ lawyers and safety advocates show that N.H.T.S.A.’s Office of Vehicle Safety Compliance began to test keyless-ignition vehicles in 2013 for compliance with regulations meant to guard against theft and rollaways.
The agency inquiry prompted Ford to conduct a voluntary recall of two keyless models that did not have an audible chime to warn the driver that the car was running, according to a letter sent to the agency by Ford.
Prompted by the finding, the office expanded its investigation and tested 34 keyless models from Ford and six other carmakers, finding no consistency in safety features across manufacturers.
It tested models for warnings to alert drivers that the engine was still running, with and without the presence of the key fob, which sends an electronic signal in place of a mechanical key. It found, for example, that the 2013 Lincoln MKX sounded the horn twice if the driver’s door opened while the car was running and the key fob was taken from the vehicle, according to handwritten test sheets from the Office of Vehicle Safety Compliance. But the Lincoln provided no audible alerts in the same situation if the key fob was left inside.
The agency later concluded the investigation without taking action. Sean Kane, an auto-safety advocate who has tracked the regulator’s investigations and policies for 25 years, said the failure to pursue the inquiry was a crucial missed opportunity to address hazards linked to keyless-ignition vehicles, including carbon-monoxide poisoning.
“The agency was willing to turn a blind eye to the bigger problem,” said Mr. Kane, who has advised plaintiffs’ lawyers in some of the carbon-monoxide cases. “We have a keyless-ignition system that operates in a manner that the consumer doesn’t understand, and that leads to deaths and injuries.”
As for the rule proposed in 2011, the safety agency says it is still collecting comment.
Majlie de Puy Kamp contributed reporting.