Was Star Trek actor fatality among 266 crashes related to confusing shifter?

Government investigators found hundred of crashes resulted from the confusing gear shift in Fiat Chrysler vehicles, potentially including the crash that killed Anton Yelchin.

Domenico Stinellis/AP/File
Actor Anton Yelchin at the 2014 Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy. Mr. Yelchin, a charismatic and rising actor best known for playing Chekov in the new 'Star Trek' films, died June 19. A government investigation into confusing gear shifters like the one in the SUV that crushed Yelchin found 266 crashes that injured 68 people.

A government investigation into confusing gear shifters in Fiat Chrysler vehicles found 266 crashes that injured 68 people. The carmaker is speeding up a recall of 1.1 million vehicles following hundreds of consumer complaints about the electronic shifters and an accident with one recalled sport utility vehicle resulting in the death of Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said Fiat Chrysler appeared to violate basic design guidelines for vehicle controls, making it difficult for drivers to tell if they had successfully moved the transmission to "park" before leaving the vehicle. Many drivers reported their vehicles rolled after they had exited.

Actor Anton Yelchin, best known for playing the young Russian starship navigator Chekov in the relaunched series of "Star Trek" movies, died on June 19 when his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee pinned him against a mailbox pillar and security fence at his home, according to Los Angeles police who are continuing to investigate the crash.

The NHTSA called Mr. Yelchin's death “the first fatality we're aware of that may be related to this safety defect and vehicle recall.”

The agency’s testing found that the electronic gear shifter is “not intuitive” and offers “poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection.” The gear shifter’s lever always move back into a central position after the driver selects a gear by toggling through the options, which are indicated by lights rather than notches along a track, as in more conventional shifters.

A class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of owners of 2012-2014 Dodge Charger, 2012-2014 Chrysler 300, and 2014-2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee argues that the cars must have effective safety overrides to prevent unattended vehicles from rolling. The plaintiffs point to BMW as a model. BMWs are equipped with a comparable gear shifter, but they automatically shift into park if the driver’s door is opened and the brake pedal released.

Currently, if a driver opens the door of one of the recalled cars when the gearshift isn’t in park, a chime rings and message pops up to alert them, but dealers will be able to load a software update into vehicles that automatically shifts the car into park if the door opens while the engine is running.

Fiat Chrysler sent out recall notification letters to owners on May 16, according to a memo to dealers, and owners started being alerted to bring their cars in for a software update June 24. Originally, the company had said the update would be ready in July or August, but the process has apparently been sped up. It's currently available for the bulk of the vehicles and Fiat Chrysler said availability was "imminent" for the rest.

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