When used as directed, the automobile is a wonderful invention.
Otherwise, as we know, it can be a deadly weapon.
The same can be said for the baseball bat, the chain saw, the matchstick.
Where the automobile differs is in the resources devoted — by manufacturers, regulators and watchdogs — to ensuring that even when it's abused or used incorrectly, the threat to life and limb is substantially mitigated. (Baseball bats don't have airbags.)
Another big difference is the pace of innovation and the rising complexity of vehicles. Chances are good that the car you buy today is different in at least a few important ways from the last car you bought, whereas matches work pretty much the same. From year to year, the automobile changes far faster than the expectations and habits of consumers.
Last week's New York Times report about carbon monoxide poisoning, and dozens of deaths and injuries, linked to keyless ignitions, highlights this point. People who either don't know or forget how such ignitions work are prone to leaving their engines running in the garage, the Times reported. Before long, deadly carbon monoxide from the tailpipe fills the home.
The tone of the Times piece notwithstanding, this is not the result of vicious automakers trying to kill their customers. Rather, it's a case of user error combining with advanced technology to elevate a well-understood risk.
Running cars spew poisonous gases. That's why we turn them off when we go in the house, just as we always have. We know all this, don't we?
That said, people are erring and dying, and the auto industry can't disavow this risk any more than it could avoid fitting vehicles with seat belts, impact-absorbing bumpers and shatterproof glass. Regulators have identified a problem. Engineers have acknowledged it and proposed solutions. Automakers and dealers now have the obligation to do something. That's the way an enlightened industry works.
It's best that they not fixate on the right distance between key and car, or the optimum number of beeps to remind the driver. We have become desensitized to the chimes and beeps for all sorts of things. Lights on. Door ajar. Oil change required.
CO is a unique threat that shouldn't be confused with others. Whatever solution is devised — and one needs to be devised — should detect the threat of carbon monoxide buildup and differentiate it from all other threats, because there are no other indicators, visual or olfactory. If it's an alarm, it should be the sharpest of alarms, or a honking horn, combined with a voice alert that continues until the owner intervenes, and it should be triggered well before the gas has a chance to disable a person. A connected car might place a call to your cellphone as well as an emergency contact, or activate the garage-door opener.
But before all that, automakers and dealers must demonstrate that they are doing the bare minimum: educating their customers about an unfamiliar technology — the conveniences and the potential risks.
Unlike today's infotainment systems, the keyless-ignition and smart-fob combination hardly requires a six-module seminar. But a quick lesson is warranted on how to use it safely. It's the solemn duty of every dealer who claims to "put the customer first."
And with every sale, there's a prime opportunity to educate: the memorable moment when the keys are handed over to the new owner. It might kill the joy of that moment. Then again, it might save a life.