Carbon Monoxide and Keyless Ignitions

Carbon Monoxide and Keyless Ignitions are causally connected because the physical act of of pulling out the key is no longer required to stop the car engine. Thus people forget to turn off the car, especially in quiet cars like hybrids.

We are in love with technology. From our phones to gadgets designed to make our lives easier.  Gadgets have become a part of universal commercial appeal in multitudes of products. One field which has encompassed this love of gadgets is the automobile industry. I am of the generation that grew up with manual windows you had to roll up and down and radios you had to spin the dial to find a station. I remember having a new car for several years before I realized I could adjust the radio with the steering wheel controls. But what happens when habit overrides technology and places an entire generation at risk? This is the issue raised by the introduction of keyless ignitions.

Carbon Monoxide and Keyless Ignitions

Carbon Monoxide and Keyless Ignitions are causally related because quiet cars do not require the act of physically turning off an engine before leaving them in a garage. This is particularly a problem for people who learned to drive more than a generation ago. One must honestly ask: what purpose did eliminate the ignition key actually serve? 

The Connection Between Carbon Monoxide and Keyless Ignitions

Older people, in particular, after a lifetime of putting the key in the ignition and consequently turning the car off and removing the key, have become victims of the seemingly innocent keyless ignition. A keyless ignition consists of a fob which activates and deactivates the ignition by pushing a button. In some models of vehicles this fob is incorporated into the dashboard as an “intelligent access ignition”.  A convenience which is perhaps enjoyable as gadgets can be but ignores the fact that many of us are creatures of habit. While we are not impacted by the action of using a fob or a button to start the engine, habit can kick in and cause us to forget that we also need to push a button to turn the car off. One might feel comforted feeling the key fob in one’s hand without making the connection that the car has not been turned off. And this can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning as direct result of a keyless ignition.

Older people are not the only ones at risk to carbon monoxide poisoning from a keyless ignition. In 2018, a Louisville, KY father turned on his car which was parked in the garage to warm up while he readied his young children for school. The father placed his three-year-old in the car seat. Both were found deceased at the scene. The eight-year-old died the next day at the hospital. All victims of carbon monoxide poisoning in part due to what can be seen as a somewhat predictable misuse of a keyless ignition system. The convenience of a technology which sometimes bypasses the mindfulness a traditional ignition system.

Carbon Monoxide and Keyless Ignitions – An Invention that Served Little Purpose

Originally the automotive industry touted the safety of a vehicle that continued to run when the fob was not present. It was viewed as a way to avoid being stranded in case the fob was lost or the battery died in the fob. You drop someone at the airport and they take the fob with them, you are still able to drive home but will not be able to restart the car once the engine dies. But vehicles continue to run until they are out of gas and that is where the problem lies with carbon monoxide and the keyless ignition.

Newer cars run with quieter engines as well. And the elderly are less likely to be alerted that their vehicles are still running once they are at their destination. And this can turn into a deadly situation if the car is left running in an attached garage. In addition, the  action of opening and closing the garage door itself can mask the sound of the running engine and increase the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Another issue arises with SUVs which can experience backdrafts when only the tailgate is left open while the vehicle is running. This can lead to dangerous carbon monoxide levels in the vehicle if the engine is unknowingly left running, i.e. again connecting Carbon Monoxide and Keyless Ignitions.

17 million new cars are sold annually in the United States and over half of these feature a keyless ignition. Toyota and Lexus are responsible for 47% of the known deaths tied to the keyless ignition, but the problem is more widespread I the automotive industry. Were there concerns that keyless ignitions might pose a danger? Years earlier, the Society of Automotive Engineers recommending a warning system consisting of a series of beeps to warn drivers if the car was still running without the fob in the car. It was also recommended that an automatic  shut-off feature was used to shut down a running vehicle after a certain amount of time. The Society of Automotive Engineers were not the only ones concerned about keyless ignitions.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration backed federal regulations which would require a software change that they estimated at pennies per vehicle. Opposition from the auto industry left that idea in limbo indefinitely.

In 2015 ten automakers were sued by US consumers who claimed that the automakers concealed the risks associated with keyless ignitions. They sought for the installation of safety shut-off features to be mandatory in vehicles with keyless ignitions. This lawsuit was sparked by 13 deaths which had occurred to that year, citing 27 complaints which had also been filed with the National Highway Safety Administration.  The lawsuit contended that the automotive industry had been aware of the risks since at least 2003 when keyless ignitions had been introduced industry wide.  The lawyers referred to the risk of keyless ignitions as a “deadly defect”. The society for Automotive Engineers had also estimated that adding safety features to the fob itself would result in a cost to manufacturers of pennies for every vehicle.

For Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Frequently Asked Questions, click here.

Hybrid vehicles present another facet of the dangers of keyless ignition. Once parked the engine may not be running at all, until the battery runs low. The car engine then starts and deadly carbon monoxide can follow.

While some automakers have taken the risks seriously and taken corrective actions, just like the boat safety issues we discussed earlier, used cars are still on the market. Consumers are not educated to the special risks these vehicles bring with them. Research into your vehicle’s keyless ignition system is highly recommended whether one is buying used or new.

There is also the possibility that keyless ignitions may result in higher insurance premiums, not only due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, but also due to the fact that there have been  instances of hacking these systems resulting in vehicle theft risks. There is also a risk of the vehicle rolling upon exiting the vehicle as the keyless system does not remind us to put the vehicle in park. Severe injuries and property damage have occurred when a driver has left the vehicle with the fob in hand and neglected to put it in park.

NHTSA recommends a safety checklist for all owners of vehicles with keyless ignitions. This includes always making sure your vehicle is in park before exiting, always shutting off the vehicle, engaging the parking brake, reading the owner’s manual regarding the use of your keyless system and watching their safety video at

Garages are Incubators for Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

There are many news articles about the people who have suffered deadly consequences and one thing that sticks out is that the victims are often elderly people with distinguished careers who were still leading active, involved lives at the time of their deaths. One can only guess that seniors keeping an active lifestyle might be very prone to falling back to habit as they focus on their schedules and that one slip in focus can become deadly. But younger drivers are also affected because often vehicles are started prior to pulling out of a garage and in the case of the keyless ignition, that fact may be forgotten while they are getting children ready or other distractions. A running vehicle parked in an open garage can also produce dangerous carbon monoxide due to backdrafts. Not having to physically place a key in the ignition results in many scenarios that we all can envision in often hectic lives.

Keyless ignitions were introduced by Mercedes in the 1990’s and spread to other luxury vehicles in the early 2000s. By 2008, 11% of vehicles featured keyless ignitions and by 2018 that number had grown to 62% of all vehicles. A rapid growth for a feature of convenience that few of us are aware could become deadly in the wrong circumstances.

Is Alarming Enough?

Some automakers have added alarms for the fobs when the driver is out of the car with it, or automatic shut-off features. Future safety features might include smartphone apps which can warn us that the vehicle has not been shut down. Having had elderly drivers in my family, I wonder how effective some of these measures are for elderly drivers, especially those hard of hearing or technology challenged? I would encourage those with elderly family members to make sure drivers are aware of the risks when using a keyless ignition system. If federal regulations can’t be agreed to, then we have to be concerned personally with the welfare of our elderly. Even if that means a well-placed reminder to shut the vehicle off.

In 2019, a bill was introduced by Senate Democrats to address the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning and rollaways due to keyless ignitions. The Protecting Americans from the Risks of Keyless Ignition Technology (PARK IT) Act also called for automakers to include automatic shut-off technology in all vehicles. The cost for this would be around $5 per vehicle which is the amount that General Motors said it would cost to retrofit existing vehicles with this feature. The sponsors of the bill pointed out that new convenience gadgets should be equipped with safety features including appropriate labeling and information about how this systems function. The PARK IT Act has yet to be passed.

The New York Times 2018 investigation into keyless ignitions identified 28 fatalities and 45 injuries since 2006 directly related to keyless ignition systems. Rollaway incidents add to that number. Even so it remains a popular feature in new vehicles and we can only expect that number to grow. Hopefully its growth is accompanied by adequate alarm systems, automatic shut-off features and standardized warning labels. Our cars are equipped with reminders to fasten seatbelts, close doors left ajar, check tire pressure and other warnings. We should then expect appropriate protections be required for keyless ignitions. In addition, adequate education of potential owners upon purchase is needed, especially those at a higher risk for mishap. When any luxury technology is introduced, education about the possibility for malfunction is an absolute necessity to ensure the safety of consumers.

When SUVs became popular in the 1990s we saw an increase in accidents in which children were backed over due to the decreased visibility. Today we see SUVs equipped with cameras to prevent “back overs”. Interestingly these are marketed as a luxury option rather than a safety device installed to reduce injury and death and a response to public outcry.

We have seen a rise in deaths of children left in hot vehicles due to new safety recommendations and rules which require that car seats are placed in the center of the rear seat, facing backwards. This places children out of the line of sight of drivers. Though alarm systems are available in the marketplace, there is no standard system required at this time.

We look at these types of changes in our vehicle use as progress to combat a busier world in which we have also become less mindful. From the father switching on his car in the garage while he readies the children, to the harrowed soccer mom quickly backing out of the driveway, to the elderly person who feels the key in his pocket and gives no second thought to the car left running. These are instances where constant awareness might prevent harm but we must assume that the world is not that simplistic and these lapses can occur. And they can be fatal. And this assumption about human behavior must be foremost on the minds of those who profit through the sale of vehicles touted as equipped with convenience for new generations of buyers. Unfortunately the incidents which result in injury or death are often dismissed as acceptable losses in order to avoid minimal increases in production costs. This is why the first time such a tragedy occurs we do not see immediate action on the part of manufacturers. It is only when litigation ensues that we see a response and a change in legislation.

This blog was written by Rebecca Martin.


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