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WKYT Investigates | The deadly cost of convenience

New technology has led to quieter engines and keyless ignitions in cars. But at what cost?
Published: Jul. 16, 2020 at 5:30 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 16, 2020 at 5:45 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - If you look inside Robert Dotson's garage, it is almost as if time stopped.

You can see shelves, boxes and gardening tools. Bottles of weed killer. A ladder.

And on this Friday morning, Dotson himself stands silently on the driveway, just feet from a white SUV.

It sits there motionless, mostly gathering dust, on the same concrete where his wife parked it 12 months ago.

No, Dotson says. He does not drive it.

"I leave it," he says, through a sign language interpreter. "It's been sitting there for a year."

He does not know what to do with it. He does not want to drive it, does not want even to keep it.

"I'll trade it in soon or something," he adds.

In a way, then, for Robert Dotson, time did stop.

When that car did.

On July 9, 2019.

When Connie - his beloved wife of 24 years - died.

"I miss her so much," Dotson says. "I just feel like half of her life was taken from her."

And, he says, it did not have to be that way.

Robert and Connie Dotson on one of the many trips they enjoyed taking together.
Robert and Connie Dotson on one of the many trips they enjoyed taking together.(Provided)

Connie Dotson was 54 years old when, on a warm July night last year, she parked her 2016 Toyota Rav4 Limited in the garage, walked inside her house and went to sleep.

She never woke up.

She died alone inside her home - carbon monoxide poisoning, the coroner's report shows - not knowing her keyless car was still running in the attached garage.

Dotson, like her husband, was "profoundly deaf," meaning, loved ones say, she would not have heard the car engine, nor any alert trying to warn her that it was still running.

WKYT first reported Dotson’s death last year to shed light on what advocates said was a growing problem in the deaf community.

“It’s happening too often for us to sit quietly,” Anita Dowd, of the Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, said at the time.

Now one year later, Robert Dotson, Connie's surviving husband and the executor of her estate, is suing several Toyota entities for negligence and wrongful death, among other claims.

His attorney argues that Toyota needs to implement a better system either to warn drivers or to shut off the engine after a certain amount of time if left unattended.

But the story does not start with Connie Dotson.

It starts with a shift in technology that has provided untold convenience for countless drivers - but, as WKYT Investigates’ Garrett Wymer discovered, has also come with a deadly cost for dozens over the past decade.

And, advocates say, if nothing is done, the story likely will not end with Connie Dotson, either.

Connie Dotson's Rav4.
Connie Dotson's Rav4.(WKYT)

“Imagine this,” said Robert Roark, standing outside the Dotson home on a sunny and warm summer day in Lexington. ”The driver pushes the stop button, but they don’t push it hard enough, and they get out.

“As they park the car in the garage right behind us,” he said, “they just signed a death warrant. That’s what happened here.”

Roark, an attorney, is now leading the legal effort for Robert Dotson. They are suing Toyota Motor Corporation based in Japan, as well as the company’s North American arm based in Texas and several of the company’s sales entities, including the car dealership where the Dotsons purchased the Rav4.

Their court filing claims Toyota's warning system to let drivers know the car is still running is not enough, particularly for the Dotsons.

"There are three faint beeps," Roark said. "For a deaf person, that is no warning."

Toyota declined a WKYT request for an interview for this story, but a corporate spokesperson did provide a statement.

It reads, in full: “Toyota is committed to providing its customers with safe and reliable transportation, and our Smart Key System meets or exceeds all relevant federal safety standards. Regarding the claims in this lawsuit, we will respond in the appropriate forum.”

A month before Dotson’s death, Toyota announced it would launch an automatic engine shut-off feature in most 2020 keyless models.

Multiple news reports say Ford, on the other hand, began adding the feature in 2013, and General Motors spent only about $5 per car to install automatic engine shut-off in a 2015 safety recall.

Toyota has not announced plans to recall or retrofit older models to add the engine shut-off technology.

Some industry watchdogs had criticized Toyota for not doing more previously as the carbon monoxide death toll rose. Of the nearly two dozen carbon monoxide deaths and injuries identified by The New York Times in a 2018 investigation, Toyota models – including Lexus – figured in almost half of them.

Yet report after report shows that the issue with keyless cars has been a problem - even beyond Toyota - going back more than a decade.

A push button start common in keyless ignition cars.
A push button start common in keyless ignition cars.(WKYT)

Keyless ignition systems in cars have grown in popularity and prevalence since they were first introduced in luxury car models near the turn of the millennium.

By 2008 keyless ignition was standard on 11 percent of vehicles sold in the U.S., according to Edmunds, an online automotive resource site. Ten years later, the feature was standard on nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of vehicles sold.

But with the convenience of a push-button start and a quieter engine do come some dangers, including the apparent likelihood of leaving the engine running accidentally - either by forgetting to push the button or pushing it in a way that does not adequately turn off the engine.

A nationwide analysis of news reports, lawsuits, police and fire records, and research by advocacy groups found since 2006 three dozen deaths and dozens more injuries related to carbon monoxide from different keyless ignition cars, The New York Times reported last year, less than two weeks before Connie Dotson’s death.

Current safety standards do not require engine shut-off systems, but official federal agencies are well aware of the potential dangers without them. Several regulatory efforts to reduce the resulting carbon monoxide deaths, however, have stalled.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a rule in 2011 to address carbon monoxide concerns stemming from keyless cars running unintentionally.

It went nowhere.

Instead, a page on NHTSA’s website warns about leaving keyless cars running without the fob inside.

A bill filed last year in Congress - the PARK IT Act - would require regulators to finalize rules for automatic shut-off systems, but the bill never made it out of committee.

The failed efforts mean related safety measures have been left largely in the hands of the car manufacturers themselves. But advocates say the number of deaths, injuries and lawsuits proves that car makers have done too little for too long - and have hurt too many people in the process.

"They have chosen to let people die," said Robert Roark, "rather than put in an automatic shut-off or flashing lights.

“Either one,” he said, “would’ve saved [Connie’s] life.”

Connie Dotson, 1964-2019
Connie Dotson, 1964-2019(Provided)

Connie Renee Dotson was born October 27, 1964 in Fort Thomas, Ky. Despite facing the difficulties of being deaf and non-speaking, she overcame many obstacles, friends say, and became a leader and role model in the community.

Growing up, Connie attended Kentucky School for the Deaf. She met her future husband there. She was even valedictorian of her graduating class, her obituary states.

She was awarded the title of Miss Deaf Kentucky, attended Gallaudet University, and worked for more than 30 years in various government roles - including three years as a senate staffer on Capitol Hill, two years with the IRS and 26 years at the VA Medical Center in Lexington, according to her obituary.

She was also a Sunday school teacher and an advocate for others in the deaf community, working closely with organizations including Kentucky School for the Deaf.

It was no surprise, then, to those who knew her that so many people showed up at Dotson's visitation and funeral to pay their respects.

"It was very moving," said Roark, who attended because he knew the Dotsons. He said it was "beautifully quiet" to see the couple's dear friends comforting each other using American Sign Language.

Before Roark left, he says a group of Connie’s friends he did not know came up to him with an envelope. He gets emotional sharing the story.

“One of the most touching things I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Inside the envelope were some dollar bills the friends had collected in hopes of helping Roark to pursue a claim against Toyota.

Roark did not accept the money, instead having them donate it to the School for the Deaf, he said.

But: “I vowed we would take this fight.”

Connie Dotson's Rav4, inside the garage where she last parked it before her death.
Connie Dotson's Rav4, inside the garage where she last parked it before her death.(WKYT)

The civil complaint, filed June 29 in Fayette Circuit Court, levels five claims, including three - negligence and wrongful death; strict liability; and breach of express warranty - against Toyota, and two more claims - negligence and strict liability - against the dealership where the Dotsons purchased their Rav4.

Dotson is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, and the complaint demands a trial by jury.

The lawsuit lays out what happened the night of July 8, 2019 - when Connie Dotson went on a dinner date with her husband (who would spend that night away to take care of his mother’s dogs), returned home, parked in the garage and went to bed.

Evidence exhibits include the patient care record from the emergency medical technicians who responded to her home the next morning and found her dead.

"Once inside, a smell of gas was present and the CO monitor on the med bag began to alarm," the incident narrative reads.

Exhibits also include Dotson’s death certificate, which lists carbon monoxide toxicity as the immediate cause of death, and a toxicology report showing in her system a compound known as carboxyhemoglobin - what forms in red blood cells when carbon monoxide is breathed.

The lawsuit says the Dotsons purchased their Rav4 new, equipped with the manufacturer’s Smart Key System technology, which allows for keyless entry and ignition, and even for the key fob to start the engine - but not to stop it.

The lawsuit claims that the three-beep warning for Toyota's Smart Key System provides an "audible and grossly inadequate" external warning that the engine is still running - or no external warning at all to the deaf or hard-of-hearing.

"Daily tasks and routines that hearing individuals would not even consider as 'risky' have potentially fatal consequences to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing," the complaint states.

The complaint seeks to make the case that, even though other companies have an "automatic engine shutoff failsafe," Toyota knew about the danger its vehicles posed and had the technology to fix it, but instead did nothing,

Toyota will have the opportunity to file in court an answer to the complaint before both legal teams begin what is termed the “discovery” process leading up to a potential trial.

The first page of the lawsuit Robert Dotson and his attorney filed against Toyota over Connie...
The first page of the lawsuit Robert Dotson and his attorney filed against Toyota over Connie Dotson's death.(WKYT)

The legal process in this case is just beginning, so a long battle remains ahead. It could be years until the case goes to trial or a settlement is reached.

"We know how powerful and big law firms Toyota has," Roark said. "And we're up for the fight."

But it will not be an easy one. Not that Dotson would expect it to be.

It has already been a difficult year for him in the months since Connie's death.

Connie's five cats - which once "followed her everywhere," Dotson says - are aimless, needy, looking for love from their late owner.

“They’ve just been lost,” Dotson says. “They come to me, and I don’t know how to help them.”

Because he, too, is lost.

He fights depression, he says.

For as much as he and Connie loved to travel - a memorable trip to Italy at the top of the list, captured in a photo depicting their two smiling faces - now he does not want to leave the house.

“I know she’s in heaven,” Dotson says. “But I miss her. I just miss her dearly.”

So when Dotson does leave the house, he says, he does not use the Rav4.

It largely sits there - idle, but not idling - serving as a far too frequent reminder that time keeps moving forward.

Even as some things stay forever still.

A collection of photos of the Dotsons, outside of the couple's home.
A collection of photos of the Dotsons, outside of the couple's home.(WKYT)

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