Anton Yelchin, the actor best known for playing Chekhov in the reboot of the "Star Trek" movies, unexpectedly died Sunday when his SUV rolled down his driveway and trapped him against a security gate. The death raised the fear of anyone who's ever parked on a steep incline and worried if the brakes would hold.
Rollaway vehicles kill about 93 people a year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Between 2008-2011, there were were 370 known deaths resulting from an unattended car that had rolled away. NHTSA estimates that rollaway cars also injure about 2,000 people a year. The NHTSA also estimates that about 500 people every year are killed by cars in non-crash accidents — a quarter of those deaths involve carbon monoxide poisoning, and another quarter which involve someone getting crushed by the car, usually when the victim was working underneath it.
But these are just a tiny fraction of the number of people killed in traffic crashes. The CDC estimates that in 2013, 33,804 people died in motor vehicle accidents.
In Yelchin's case, he appears to have been using a car that has come under scrutiny for its gear system. TMZ has reported, citing the Los Angeles Police Department, that when friends discovered Yelchin’s body, they found his car — a 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee — idling in neutral.
The automotive blog Jalopnik reported Monday that the Jeep was one of 1.1 million vehicles that were recalled in April because of a confusing gear shifter that could cause the car to roll away unexpectedly,
Last year, NHTSA began investigating the unconventional gearstick design on these cars, which was causing crashes because drivers were mistakenly shifting to neutral when they thought they were shifting to park.
With a regular gearstick, drivers choose a transmission option (park, reverse, neutral, drive, etc.) by moving the stick into the corresponding notch or detent. Drivers can feel the stick settle into position.
But a new, different, design was used in the cars affected by the recall, which include certain recent models of the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, and Jeep Grand Cherokee.
These cars use a “monostable electronic gearshift assembly,” which resembles an arcade joystick. To shift gears, drivers push the gearstick forward or backward and hold it there until the change registers on the display. Drivers then release the gearstick, which springs back into its centered position.
According to a preliminary report from NHTSA in February, the design led to 314 complaints involving rollaway incidents, and 121 alleged crashes. Thirty of those crashes reportedly involved injuries — including four cases so serious that people had to be hospitalized for broken bones or ruptured organs.
The shifter “is not intuitive and provides poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection,” the report warned.
In April, manufacturer Fiat Chrysler Automobiles announced a voluntary recall for these cars, citing 41 reports of injuries. Over 800,000 of the estimated 1.1 million cars were sold in the U.S.
Fiat Chrysler sent affected drivers a letter in May telling them that it was working on a fix, and that they should prepare to bring their cars in for repairs later this year. In the meantime, the company told drivers to shift gears carefully. "ALWAYS DO A VISUAL CHECK that your vehicle is in 'PARK,'" the letter said. FCA also advised drivers to always use the parking brake.
According to the recall report, the company planned to begin repairs later this summer by updating the software in these cars. It has also stopped using this shifter design in its new cars. The 2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee has a conventional shifter:
In 2014 alone, there were 803 new recalls involving motor vehicles with safety problems, affecting an estimated 63 million vehicles. To find out if your car is affected by a safety recall, you can check by entering the VIN number on the NHTSA's website.
Fiat Chrysler said Monday it would investigate Yelchin's death. A spokesoman told Reuters it would do a "thorough investigation," adding that it "it is premature to speculate on its cause at this time."