“New-Car Fumes” May Have Contributed to Hit-and-Run, Expert Says

LTB logo

Mmmm, who doesn't love the smell of a new car? There's just nothing else like it.

It may also be deadly.

That's according to an accident-reconstruction expert working for the defense in a Colorado criminal case. The expert has reportedly opined that the "new-car fumes" emitted from a newly bought 2010 Mercedes may have contributed to an accident in which a driver allegedly dozed off and struck a cyclist. "Harmful and noxious gases emitted from the upholstery," wrote the expert, "can infiltrate the driver's compartment and potentially alter the driver." That makes it sound like they might turn him into the Incredible Hulk, which would certainly be bad (talk about road rage), but probably the expert meant that they could potentially alter the driver's consciousness. (Also, you can't "infiltrate" something unless you were outside it to begin with, I don't think, but I'll let that one go.)

To be fair, it appears from this report that the defendant's attorneys did not actually blame the accident on new-car fumes. The fumes might have contributed, one was quoted as saying, but "there's no scientific evidence for that." That candor might be partly because they had another mitigating factor to work with, since their client has a sleep disorder.  "Once we found out that he suffers from sleep apnea," the attorney said, "we were confident that was the cause." Or were at least confident it would be a better argument.

Turns out there is, in fact, at least some evidencesome Internet evidence, anyway — that new cars can give off significant levels of "volatile organic compounds" emitted from paint, vinyl, plastic, and other materials used to make the car. As you would expect, these levels are highest when the car is new, and decline over time. (The defendant in this case reportedly had owned the car for about a month.) According to this 2005 story, Japanese automakers took steps to reduce VOC levels years ago, and it's possible that other manufacturers have as well (or not). These sources express some concern about the long-term effects of VOCs, but don't seem to say anything about whether they could cause you to run over somebody.

According to the Vail Daily, "Calls to Mercedes Benz USA in New Jersey about their new car smell were not returned by deadline."