Fort Report: Why I Do Town Halls

Aug 9, 2019
Fort Report

Last Wednesday evening during the Bellevue town hall, Sharon gracefully stood, steadied herself to keep from crying, and softly spoke: “I am going to tell you a story that never gets easier, and I’ll try to be as quick as possible.  

“On April 24th, I took my mom out for lunch, she and my dad.  It was three days before her 80th birthday, and it was a fantastic day.  They were scheduled to go on a cruise to Alaska to celebrate my mom’s birthday. 

“We found their bodies in their home thirteen days later here in Bellevue.”

Sharon’s parents––Thomas (a disabled vet) and Ann (a proud American of British birth)––had died in their bedroom from the fumes of their 2017 Hyundai Tucson that Ann had accidentally left running in the garage.  Everyone in the packed Bellevue University Military Veteran Services Center grew quiet and listened intently as Sharon continued.  “We declined the media coverage.  It was just gruesome and a horror to find your parents.  My dad must have woken up and dragged my mom from the bed.  He was found on the floor, holding her...  Sometimes I’m glad they went together.  They were married for 52 years.”

Sharon came to the town hall to tell her story because she wanted my support of the Protecting Americans from the Risks of Keyless Ignition Technology (PARK IT) Act.  With keyless ignition, the driver must have the key fob within a short range of the vehicle and use a dashboard button to turn the car on and off.   Since a driver doesn't have to manually use a key, occasionally a driver leaves the car, having forgotten to push the button that turns it off.  Among other things, the PARK IT bill would mandate automatic shut-off for cars with keyless ignitions, after the car had idled for a reasonable period, in order to prevent accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.  

While some keyless ignition cars already shut off after a period of time, many do not.  Thirty-seven persons have died since 2005 from unknowingly leaving their cars running in an attached garage.  It’s still up to automakers to self-regulate.  Though the cost to install the existing technology is minimal, many carmakers have decided against doing so and against audible or visual warnings to alert a driver that the car is still running.  

I had not heard about the PARK IT bill until Sharon spoke.  Having since reviewed it, I believe it is solid, smart legislation that deserves wide support.  It may not even require passage for the bill to achieve its intended result.  As I told a local TV station, “It’s just the possibility of a bill targeting the industry to make them change, and some car-makers already have,” adding, “Sometimes legislation that has deep, deep meaning doesn't necessarily need to have large numbers.  It just needs to have the right moment.  Sharon has helped create that right moment."

Sharon’s powerful story reminds me of a key purpose of town halls: To hear from Nebraskans who just want the government to fix a difficult, and sometimes horrible, problem that they cannot fix themselves.  Many of my colleagues in Congress have stopped doing town halls.  I continue to believe that we can have robust civil discussions in Nebraska.  While these conversations are at times intense, they are not impossible––and good things can come out of them.  

I want to thank the Nebraskans who came to the town halls or followed coverage of them.  You should know that in a follow-up conversation with Sharon, she said, “I slept well for the first time in months.”