Carbon monoxide kills: Staying safe in your car

carbon monoxide killsIt’s common knowledge that carbon monoxide kills. It’s the culprit in car-running-in-garage suicides—though it’s harder to do that with today’s cleaner running engines. Poorly vented furnaces and stoves account for news reports of fatalities every winter. However, snow country drivers have to know that carbon monoxide can be a killer with cars in open air, too.

Several years ago, three young women employed by the Squaw Valley USA ski resort died in their car parked outside of employee housing. The car was found running at one o’clock in the afternoon by resort security personnel. No sign of drugs or alcohol were found. The cause of death was determined to be carbon monoxide poisoning.

The women apparently had been in the car with the engine running all night.

Local law enforcement officials surmised that the tail pipe had become obstructed. Ten inches of snow had fallen that night and apparently the victims had been talking in the car while the carbon monoxide slowly accumulated.

Carbon monoxide is a tasteless, odorless gas that kills by binding to hemoglobin in the blood, preventing it from carrying oxygen to the body. Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning are drowsiness, possible nausea and then loss of consciousness.

Tips to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning in cars include keeping snow from obstructing the tailpipe of an idling car, something that can happen quickly in heavy, drifting snow.

Keeping the heater fan running maintains a positive pressure inside the car so that air flows out rather than seeps into the car. Resist the temptation to run the heater/air conditioner in recirculation mode (the button or knob is identified with a symbol of the outline of a car with a “u-turn” arrow). It may conserve heat but it can also keep carbon monoxide in the car.

Driving with “recirc” on will also cause the windows to mist over, making outward visibility difficult, and although fogged-over windows might have advantages at the drive-in, even that probably isn’t worth dying for. A casual chat certainly should not have cost the lives of three young women.

Other tips  to prevent carbon dioxide poisoning include not sleeping in a car with the engine running. A car’s exhaust system should be kept in good working order and the engine in top running condition. An out-of-tune car can produce more carbon monoxide. Make sure door seals, trunk seals and hatchback seals really do seal.

In short, keep vehicles in good working order. Keep the ventilation fan running. Keep the exhaust pipe clear of accumulating snow. Keep aware of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. Keep alive. Carbon monoxide kills.

Share this article

John is a veteran auto writer, first published in Custom Rodder magazine in 1980. Since then, he has been published in all the big car magazines, including Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Auto Week, Automobile, plus a variety of others, including but certainly not limited to Automobile Quarterly, Collectible Automobile, and Special Interest Automobiles. John’s work has also been featured in a number of consumer and general interest magazines such as Consumers Digest, Popular Science and others. John has written four books, including a history of the Mazda RX-7 (selling for more out-of-print than it did new), buyers’ guides for Mazda, Datsun/Nissan and Volvo cars, and is co-author of 365 Cars You Must Drive with Motor Trend editor Matt Stone, and his work has been translated into Italian, Estonian, Portuguese, Russian, and Bulgarian. John is recipient of the prestigious Ken Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism, awarded by the International Motor Press Association, and the Golden Quill from the Washington Automotive Press Association. John has three adult daughters and has been married for more that four decades to Mary Ann, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.