Keyless ignitions a ‘clear safety problem,’ NHTSA says

People with keyless ignitions are walking away without turning off their cars. (Photo: WNCN)

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Our cars are fast becoming super machines filled with high-tech conveniences, but one of those conveniences can have deadly consequences.

It’s the keyless ignition.

People are walking away without turning off their cars.

“It was one of those unknown situations,” recalls Capt. Joseph Cooke, of the Mooresville Police Department.

It all started with a 911 call in March.

“I just happened to be driving down the road, and a gentleman speaking Spanish ran up to my car. And, he was pointing at his house and something. I think maybe somebody broke into his house,” the caller told 911 operators.

It turned out that wasn’t the case at all.

When the officers arrived at the the house, they didn’t know what they were walking into, but within just a few minutes they started feeling sick and disoriented. One officer told WNCN he doesn’t even remember how he got out of the home.

“Their throats and eyes were burning. They knew something was wrong. They were breathing something,” Cooke said.

It turns out the home was full of poisonous carbon monoxide, but that wasn’t clear because the car had been moved.

A man left a 2009 Nissan Murano running all night in the garage, unaware he hadn’t turned it off.

It’s a kind of car where the driver carries a fob and pushes the start button instead of inserting a key into the ignition.

“This was just an unfortunate situation where he wasn’t familiar with his daughter’s car,” said Cooke. “If carbon monoxide detectors had been in the house, that would have been something that hopefully would have alerted the family that something’s going on.”

Three people in the home and four police officers were taken to the hospital. All of them survived.

“They were lucky. They were very lucky that no fatalities resulted,” said Cooke.

Other people haven’t been as lucky.

In 2012, Ray Harrington died in his home about 20 minutes from Mooresville after leaving his car running in the garage.

The auto safety group Kids and Cars said across the country 19 people have died under similar circumstances.

“We’d like to see the automatic shutdown. It’s the absolute failsafe,” says Noah Kushlefsky, an attorney in New York.

He brought a lawsuit against Toyota, the maker of Lexus, after an incident in 2009.

Mary Rivera, a college professor, parked her Lexus in the garage, took her key fob inside and didn’t realize she’d left the car running. She suffered permanent brain damage, and her companion, Ernest Codelia, was killed.

“Most manufacturers aren’t even warning about the problem,” says Kushlefsky.

So, Kushlefsky went to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In 2011, the agency issued a proposed rule to require alarm systems, calling this issue a “clear safety problem.”

In 2016, the rule is still just a proposal.

The agency was due to make it final, but a spokeswoman says that won’t happen yet.

When asked why, she would only say the agency “is considering the public comments … as it determines a path forward on issues associated with keyless ignition systems.”

“I have no idea what’s taken so long,” said Kushlefsky.

WNCN tested out different cars with keyless ignitions to see how they alert drivers when they walk away.

The Lexus RX 350 beeped three times. The Ford Edge flashed an alert on the dashboard and honked twice. Meanwhile, the Hyundai Santa Fe emitted a noise for five seconds. All of them kept running.

“So, there is not a standard,” said Stephen Phillips, the traffic safety manager for AAA Carolinas. “It’s happened to me before. I’ve left the key in the cup holder, left the car running because the cars are also quieter now.”

Phillips said the standards should be uniform.

“The problem with technology in vehicles is, technology moves quicker than the government is able to start regulations,” he said. “They have to figure out what are the best regulations, and then they’re going to make the manufacturers standardize. But what’s the next electronic thing in our car that’s going to cause an issue?”

A class action lawsuit has been filed against ten auto makers, calling on them to install an automatic shut off feature. Ford has started doing that on newer models.

In a statement, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers told WNCN:

“Auto safety is our top priority, so the industry continues working with a standards-setting body to further develop best practices.

“Current keyless ignition system designs generally follow the recommended practices of the Society of Automotive Engineers, which includes recommendations that deal with operating logic, indication of vehicle ignition/control status and the physical control characteristics of keyless ignitions systems. The recommendations also address uniform labeling – all of this so consumers can have an even better understanding of keyless systems functions.”

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