Constance Petot never thought twice about the push button starter on her car, until it almost killed her and her toddler last Valentine’s Day.
“He just went completely limp in my arms. It’s the most terrifying moment in my entire life,” said Petot.
A Channel 2 Action News investigation into the dangers of keyless entry systems has tracked more than two dozen injuries and deaths around the country, with families left wondering how this could happen.
Cars with keyless ignition have no key, and are designed to make it easier to start your car with the push of a button. But it is also easier to forget to turn off the car.
Petot, who now lives in Marietta, caught her mistake in time.The busy mom was ending her work day with a conference call as she was pulling into the garage of her parents’ Florida home, where she was staying.
“As I came in I wanted the garage door to be closed when the conference call started.
So I went ahead and pushed the button to close the door,” said Petot, “And I think in my head I just told myself I had pushed this button instead of that button.”
The mistake sent carbon monoxide, an odorless, colorless gas, flooding through their home as she got 13-month-old Parker ready for bed.
“My son woke up around 12:30 a.m. and was screaming,” Petot recalls. She got out of bed to pick him up.
Petot thinks Parker may have had a headache, because she now knows the level of carbon monoxide was high enough to have killed them within about 20 more minutes.
“Once I got dizzy, I knew I needed to get out of there,” said Petot, “And walked down the stairs, opened the garage door and saw that the taillight was on.”
Tragedy in South Carolina
Bill and Eugenia (Woo) Thomason likely never realized their mistake.
The couple’s Toyota Avalon ran inside their closed garage for 32 hours, as they slept.
“We know that they went to bed that night and didn’t wake up the next morning,” said Will Thomason, who lives here in Atlanta.
His brother Dave also lives in the metro area, and they both rushed to Greenville, S.C., but it was too late.
“By the time they were found they were essentially brain dead,” said Will Thomason, “You can’t prepare for something like this.”
The active retirees had just renewed their wedding vows after 50 years, and adored their five grandchildren, who they won’t get to see grow up.
“Oh, it’s been just absolutely terrible,” said Dave Thomason, “We all know that people can get killed in car accidents due to different things, but a car sitting alone, basically doing nothing but running?”
The brothers say their pain is worsened by the number of times they’ve now heard the same story, with reported deaths and injuries around the country.
The Thomason family has filed a lawsuit against Toyota, which has already settled with several of the other families.
“Hell yeah that makes me angry. I mean we’ve lost our parents,” said Will Thomason.
“Nobody is in the car, it’s been running for however long. The car should have an automatic cut-off. I mean to me that’s a very easy fix,” said Dave Thomason.
Will Thomason said, “There’s probably 25 other things that car makers do to for safety. Well, this is a life and death safety thing and it seems to me that this is an easy thing for them to address, and they aren’t addressing it.”
In a statement to Channel 2, Toyota said it sympathized with the Thomason family and “anyone in an accident that involves one of our vehicles.
“Regarding our Smart Key System (SKS), Toyota’s SKS provides multiple warnings to alert occupants that the engine is running when the driver exits with the key fob and closes the door. Our system also fully complies with relevant federal safety standards, and we will implement any necessary changes if those standards change in the future.”
Warnings don’t work well
Records show, since 2011, the federal government has been studying the need for an external alert to be placed on cars, but has yet to require car companies to do anything.
Channel 2 Action News tested more than a dozen of the most popular cars, to see what happens when you leave it running and walk away with the key fob.
Most of the cars had a dashboard display which notes that the key fob has left the vehicle, some even emit a low interior sound, similar to the one which reminds you to fasten your seat belt. However, if you’ve left the vehicle, you wouldn’t see that display or hear that warning.
Very few of the cars made an exterior noise.
The loudest warning came from the Chevy Impala, which utilizes the car’s horn.
Constance Petot never heard the three low beeps her car made, and she’s lived with the guilt ever since.
“I absolutely take responsibility for what happened,” she said, “And I think that it could happen to anybody.”
But she says the price for being distracted or forgetful should not be death.
“We were incredibly lucky. We absolutely wouldn’t be here,” said Petot, watching Parker play in their new Marietta home, “He is definitely my little hero Valentine.”
The day they moved in, she purchased carbon monoxide detectors for each of the rooms.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.