Families across the country are raising safety questions involving deadly vehicle rollaway accidents that kill nearly 150 people every year.
A News4 consumer investigation has found cases of vehicle rollaway incidents around the country
“I can’t imagine how I’m going to continue every day sometimes without her, because she really was that guiding force,” said Shanna Anderson, daughter of Debra Moses, who lost her life after being run over by the family car in Drums, Pennsylvania.
On Aug. 22, 2020, Debra and Alan Moses were planning a trip to a water park. According to police reports and the family’s attorney, the couple’s car rolled over Debra when her husband got out of the driver’s seat to help her open the trunk.
“There was an exit from the vehicle while the vehicle was running, while the car was not in park,” said attorney Richard Lumorro.
The vehicle rolled back, crushing Debra underneath.
The couple’s daughters tried to make sense of the loss and searched for answers. What they found was that vehicle rollaway accidents are not as uncommon as they thought.
News4 obtained exclusive video from surveillance cameras nationwide capturing victims getting run over by their own cars. Their families are left to struggle with unfathomable loss. News4 found incidents in California, New Mexico, Texas, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Miami.
According to Sean Kane, a vehicle safety expert and founder of Safety Research and Strategies, “Driver error is a symptom; it is not a cause of a rollaway.”
Kane has been sounding the alarm about rollaway accidents since the introduction of keyless vehicles and electronic gear shifters, which he says can be confusing to drivers.
“[If] you have that metal key in your hand, you know two things about the state of the vehicle. You know the transmission must be in park, and you know that the engine must be off. If you have a key fob in a keyless-ignition car and you have that fob in your hand, neither one of those may be true,” said Kane.
If the car is not in park and the driver exits the vehicle, some cars will sound an alarm or signal. But Kane says manufacturers should go a step further by installing technology that automatically puts the car into park.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says it tracks rollaway incidents and estimates that there are roughly 142 deaths and 2,000 injuries each year.
This is an estimate because they rely on police department data. Vehicle safety experts believe that number is just a fraction of rollaway cases. Since most incidents occur on private driveways or parking lots, they’re considered non-traffic events, which are not as widely reported by police.
News4 reached out to some of the area’s largest departments. Most said they do not track rollaway incidents. Only Arlington County Police said it had investigated four vehicle rollaway incidents since 2019, none of which caused injuries.
Dr. Ken Rothfield, a former anesthesiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said his car nearly crushed him to death in his Texas driveway.
“I was afraid that I was going to get ripped to shreds,” he said.
Rothfield said he had hopped out of the car to move his wife’s vehicle that was in the way and thought the car was in park, but it wasn’t.
“I was knocked into a seated position with my arm above the door, trapped between the brick wall and the car,” he said.
Rothfield suffered severe injuries, including broken ribs, a dislocated elbow and a laceration requiring 30 stitches and two surgeries.
“A large part of my career now is around keeping patients and our employees safe in a hospital setting, and we think very differently about safety than I think the auto industry does, because we know that people always make mistakes,” said Rothfield.
That’s why Rothfield and the Moses daughters are fighting to get car manufacturers to make it so all vehicles automatically shift to park if a driver exits a vehicle while it’s still in gear.
The 2021 Park It Act
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is one of the sponsors of the Park It Act, which would require all car manufacturers to install technology to prevent rollaway accidents.
“People do it all the time and then they catch themselves, but some people may not,” said Blumenthal.
He says if NHTSA won’t mandate it and if manufacturers won’t all do it, then Congress should.
“The agency has simply failed to act, and the automotive industry has failed in its responsibility to protect its own consumers,” said Blumenthal.
NHTSA told News4 it does not comment on pending legislation. The agency did provide a statement regarding the rollaway issue: “NHTSA 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.”
Toyota Collecting Rollaway Data
News4’s investigation learned one manufacturer has been capturing data on these incidents through software installed in certain models — including the vehicle involved in Debra Moses’ death.
“One thing that’s so unique about this case is we have a data entry that tells us exactly what happened,” said Lomurro.
Lomurro said the Moses’ car’s vehicle control history (VCH), similar to a black box, recorded the accident. The data shows that on Aug. 22 at 1:54 p.m., the “driver exited vehicle when shift position wasn’t in P.”
“So, they cared enough to collect that data, yet they put nothing in place to protect the person who was exiting the vehicle while the car was not in park and running,” said Lomurro.
In a statement to News4 regarding the collection of VCH, Toyota said, “Certain Toyota vehicles do have the ability to record the data event you referred to, which may, in certain circumstances, help provide a more complete understanding of vehicle performance. However, we cannot comment specifically about VCH other than to say any collection and use of such vehicle data is consistent with our Connected Services Privacy notice.”
Toyota would not say how long it had been collecting that data. News4’s investigation found it’s been years, going back to at least the 2016 Prius. But the company said it was unable to verify that.
“Why collect that information? Are you seeing how many people are going to die from this feature not being in the car?” said Cohen, referring to the automatic park feature.
In a 2019 news release Toyota announced, “starting from Model Year 2020, Toyota will begin to phase in Automatic Park, which is designed to help reduce the risk of roll-away. The feature will be available in vehicles with electronic means of shifting and/or applying the parking brake, and is designed to automatically shift the vehicle into the ‘park’ position and/or apply the electronic parking brake, in the event the driver exits the vehicle without placing the vehicle in ‘park.’”
According to the family, the Moses’ 2020 Avalon Hybrid did not have it.
“You recognized it as a problem; you made a commitment to change it,” said Cohen.
Toyota told News4, “We sympathize with anyone involved in an accident in one of our vehicles,” and that, “New features are phased in depending on many technology and production factors, which vary from model to model. We are continuing to phase in these features across our model line.”
But the Moses family questions why this life-saving technology is not in all vehicle makes and models already.
“I would tell them they have a responsibility to protect their consumers and do whatever needs to be done to make cars as safe as they possibly can,” said Cohen. “We won’t have an opportunity to be there for her and her to be there for our kids, and that’s probably the saddest part of all of this.”
When it comes to keeping your family safe from rollaway accidents, experts told News4:
- Always check the position of the shifter to ensure it’s in park
- Use the parking brake every time you exit the vehicle
- Turn off the engine every time you exit the vehicle, regardless of how quickly you intend to get back in
- Never try to stop or jump into a moving vehicle
Reported by Susan Hogan, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.