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Touching a button to unlock and start the car seems like magic. But there can be serious safety problems when a computer is running your car, not you!
After Mercedes-Benz introduced keyless ignition in its 1999 S Class models in Germany, other carmakers soon followed suit and, in 2002, Cadillac introduced the first keyless ignition system to U.S. car buyers.
Today, a majority of new cars come with keyless ignition systems as standard or optional features. With catchy labels like Smart Key, Keyless Go, Smart Access, Comfort Access, and KESSY (a Volkswagen acronym for “keyless entry and keyless start”), remote start is not confined to luxury models; household names like Buick, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota and more have embraced this hot new technology.
Why? What could be more convenient than a simple key fob that, while still in your pocket or purse, unlocks your car door and enables a dashboard button that starts the engine? Fans include cell phone users who don’t have to interrupt a call to search for keys or struggle with a lock; people with disabilities such as arthritis, for whom the old-fashioned key-in-ignition squeeze start was difficult and painful; and even women with long fingernails who know that starting the car won’t ruin their manicure!
What’s more, says Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing at an Internet automobile research site, keyless ignition “has that cool factor.”
However “cool” they may be, keyless ignition systems are proving to be the triggers for accidents that have resulted in injuries and death. Reports are surfacing of terrifying incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning, rollaway cars, and sudden acceleration – all associated with keyless ignition systems. And Palm Beach County, Florida is leading the way, with five of the 14 known fatalities in the U.S. since 2009.
Carbon monoxide poisoning has been the number one killer:
In some life-threatening incidents, keyless ignition cars turned off but not put in park have simply rolled away – in one case, running over a driver who had already exited.
Federal Manufacturer Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) mandate that a vehicle’s key cannot be removed unless the engine is off and the car’s automatic transmission is in park. Tragically, these protections are not built into automobiles with keyless ignition systems. While some automakers have built in warnings when the engine is off but the car is not in park, they have not always proved effective.
Yet another safety threat is sudden acceleration that can increase speed to dangerous rates and send cars spiraling out of control.
Of course, not all cases of sudden acceleration can be blamed on keyless ignition technology. In perhaps the most notable of recent cases, Toyota recalled millions of its vehicles for issues of possible floor mat entrapment and potentially sticking accelerators related to unintended acceleration.
Consumer Reports, an independent product testing organization, has identified five critical fixes that car manufacturers should make to reduce unintended acceleration, whether they are equipped with keyed or keyless ignition:
As early as 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed regulations to reduce the risks associated with keyless ignition systems. Proposed FMVSS 114, as published in The Federal Register, outlined protections to cover theft, rollaway, and carbon monoxide poisoning. Here is a summary:
FMVSS No. 114, Theft Protection and Rollaway Prevention, has provisions that govern the operation of ignition systems in vehicles. This rulemaking would address emerging safety concerns that NHTSA has identified using consumer compliance data regarding keyless ignition controls that are not directly addressed by this standard. The concerns are drivers who are unable to shut down the propulsion system of their vehicle in the event of any on-road emergency; drivers who shut off the propulsion system without putting their vehicle in park and walk away from the vehicle, leaving it prone to roll away; and drivers who do put their vehicle in park, but inadvertently leave the propulsion system active increasing the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in a closed environment.
We anticipate that these new requirements would have little or no anticipated cost, as they are based on a new Society of Automotive Engineers Recommended Practice J2948- 20110. We believe that manufacturers already intend to follow that Practice voluntarily. The benefits for these new provisions would be reduced consumer confusion with these new controls and reduced potential risk of death or injury. However, because these systems are not widespread in current vehicles, their benefits cannot yet be readily identified.
A research scientist with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), David Kidd, argues in a March 5, 2012 letter to NHTSA Administrator David Strickland that the proposed FMVSS standards do not go far enough. IIHS calls for standardizing the shutdown procedures for keyless ignition systems so that drivers can easily stop in an emergency, and standardizing startup procedures so that the process in all vehicles is the same. In addition, IIHS supports audible alerts that would alert drivers to conditions that lead to rollaways and potential carbon monoxide poisoning.
In December 2011, NHTSA reported only a few complaints: nine rollaway incidents and four additional complaints linking carbon monoxide incidents, and one reported death. But in subsequent years, the list has grown considerably. In 2014, the agency launched a compliance investigation into 34 car models that allowed the vehicle to be turned off while not in “park,” allowed the key fob to be removed while the car was still running, and permitted cars to restart without the key fob present.
Some car manufacturers challenge the proposed safety standards as unnecessary, but at the same time, safety advocates say that the NHTSA needs to stop “considering” regulations and issue a final rule. Among those sounding the alarm for tougher safeguards is U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, from Florida, who says, “The new keyless ignition rules NHTSA is considering have been sitting idle for far too long. . . . The agency needs to get moving and do its part to help prevent these deaths from occurring.”
Federal regulations will help, but some of the responsibility for carbon monoxide poisoning, rollaways, and sudden acceleration associated with keyless ignition systems falls on drivers themselves, who in many instances have admitted that they never read the car’s operating manual and/or they forgot to turn the engine off.
Old-fashioned keyed ignition systems all work the same way, and millions of American drivers can work them without giving a thought to the process. They put their car key in the lock, unlock the door, put the key into the ignition and start the car. With automatic transmission, the car moves forward in drive, backwards in reverse, and is stationary in neutral or park. The engine won’t turn off without putting the car in park, and this is a deeply ingrained habit.
Enter keyless ignition systems, which are all over the map in how they operate. Many car owners have never read their manual and have no idea how to operate their own vehicle in an emergency – much less a rental or borrowed car. Henry Jasny, general counsel at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, says, “Where you have a second to make an emergency maneuver, you shouldn’t have to search around for the right procedure to use on a switch.”
If you drive a car with a keyless ignition system, here are some things you can do to minimize the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning, rollaways, and sudden acceleration.
If you or a loved one has been injured or killed because of a keyless vehicle accident, please call (800) 780-8607 or contact us online. Our attorneys have been fighting for victims of injuries like yours for more than 40 years. All consultations are free and confidential, and you pay nothing unless we help you win just compensation.