Persisting Problem of Keyless Ignitions Deaths from Carbon Monoxide

Keyless ignitions deaths from carbon monoxide continue to be a problem because manufacturers won’t take inexpensive steps to make safe.

By Rebecca Martin

Keyless ignitions are not a new idea in the history of American automobiles. The earliest cars featured electronic start buttons, with keys designed to turn on or off the electric current to start the car. It wasn’t until 1949 that the first key and ignition tumblers were introduced. Physically securing vehicles was not a primary factor in the early years when many cars were often roofless and doorless; security concerns focused mainly on the ability of the car owner to be the only person to be capable of starting the car.

We have written about this before, but the problems still continue.

Keyless Ignitions not a Necessary Innovation

Keyless Ignitions Deaths from Carbon Monoxide

Keyless Ignitions Deaths from Carbon Monoxide started from car makers rushing to innovate the way people operate their cars, without considering the consequences of cars left running in attached garages. It continues because car makers won’t pay the cost of eliminating this risk.

As the key evolved, convenience began to rise to the same importance to the consumer as securing the vehicle from theft. In 1965, Ford introduced double-sided keys which worked either way in the doors and ignition and car owners were able to unlock and start their vehicles with one key. The evolution of the car key slowed until the 1980s and 90s with luxury cars touting keyless fobs as a leap in convenience. Although they began with the basic functions of opening the door and starting the car, they eventually were designed with more functions including being able to remotely start one’s vehicle.

Convenience versus safety was the tradeoff in the development of keyless ignitions. However, consumer appeal played a large role and continues to do so as smart phone apps increasingly eliminate the need for separate devices to access one’s vehicle. Eventually separate key fobs for vehicles will become as foreign to younger generations as rotary phones. But rotary phones had a safety factor that has been left behind, rotary phones were powered by battery systems that were unaffected by severe weather. Your power could go out for days and your landline would still be functioning. Modern smart phones are not capable of functioning without a steady source of electricity during major outages. In the same way, keyless ignitions fall short in some very serious ways.

Keyless Ignitions Deaths from Carbon Monoxide Most Common in Older People

There are some very vulnerable members of our society who are particularly susceptible to the shortcomings of modern keyless ignitions and the lack of safety features aimed at protecting the most vulnerable in our society.

The first issue involves the fact that most of us are creatures of habit. I think most of us can relate to driving the same drive to work daily and operating on autopilot and being slightly surprised to arrive at our destination with little recall of how we got there.  Or perhaps making a turn out of habit because one has driven that route so often. Older Americans are more likely to have behavior based on decades of experience. That behavior can include pulling the car into the garage, turning off the ignition and placing the key into one’s pocket. We make a lot of jokes about aging, such as walking into a room and forgetting why we went there, but this is one aging glitch that can prove deadly when a vehicle is left running in a garage and carbon monoxide.

Another issue is that modern vehicles run much more quietly and without the immediately visible smoke and fumes of pre-catalytic converter vehicles. All of us have probably attempted to start a vehicle which was already running because in some situations it is impossible to hear the engine. And habit also plays a role in this as we don’t necessarily listen for a moment to confirm that our vehicle is or isn’t running when we leave it.

In 2019, a Florida couple were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in Sarasota, Florida due to a vehicle with a keyless ignition left running in their attached garage.

The elderly couple were both formerly prominent members of academia and had both taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They had owned an earlier model of the 2017 Toyota Avalon and were familiar with that vehicle. They were not used to that ignition system. The Avalon they purchase was designed to beep once internally and three times externally if the door was opened while the engine was running. This warning was not adequate to alert this couple that their vehicle was still in operation. After an investigation by The New York Times in 2018, it became clear to some that more aggressive safety measures were necessary.

“Senator Richard Blumenthal demanded during a hearing that the highway safety agency adopt its proposed rule and require car manufacturers to make vehicles shut off automatically after a set period of idling.”

The New York Times investigation revealed that Toyota models, including Lexus, were involved in almost half of the carbon monoxide fatalities and injuries identified by the investigation. Toyota responded that they meet or exceed safety requirements. Technically this is true because regulators have left the issue of keyless ignition safety in the hands of the auto manufacturers who have resisted standardized safety features or complied with changes only under litigation.

Despite auto manufacturers’ contentions that updating safety features for keyless ignitions is too horrendously costly to warrant changes to federal regulations, a recall in 2015 showed that the cost for replacement of warning systems was about $5 per vehicle.

And for those companies, like Ford, who have complied with installing an automatic shut off system per legal reasons, there are no plans to retrofit all the vehicles currently in operation, nor does that option exist for other manufacturers.

Modern technology and gadgets also go hand in hand with a more frantic and rushed lifestyle which can contribute to frazzled adults committing errors that are readily foreseeable. The flustered parent rushing to get kids to daycare or school while preparing for a day at work can make a mistake that can quickly turn tragic.

The death of a Louisville, Kentucky man and his three-year old son in 2018, though not directly attributable to keyless ignitions, brought an opportunity to highlight the potential dangers keyless ignitions could contribute to when considering frazzled parents and small children. 18 fatalities have been attributed solely to keyless ignitions according to

Children can be Victims too

As recent as this week, a friend recounted an incident in which a small child left unattended in a vehicle with a key fob, started the car. Children should not have access to key fobs nor be left untended in a vehicle. However, a child with access to these things, in a garage, could have tragic consequences.  Children should not be left in a running vehicle while clearing off ice and snow, nor should they have access to the key fob while you do so.

Frazzled parents need to practice mindfulness with regards to vehicle operations. Placing a child in a running car in a garage while they run in “for a moment” to retrieve an item or another child can prove deadly.

Keyless Ignitions Deaths from Carbon Monoxide can be Eliminated

What we should, could and would do in a perfect world is one thing. It is ultimately part of the human condition. What is not comprehensible is when manufacturers’ associations or business associations of any type argue that the sole reason to not to adopt a measure to increase public safety is due to some nominal per unit cost, whether that is a shut of switch for a portable generator or a keyless ignition, or a carbon monoxide detector for hotel rooms. This implies that this is an unnecessary cost and punitive measure for them. However, this also translates to a per unit reduction in profit. How we perceive it is from which perspective we decide to adopt. What these two perspectives share in common is that each one places a value on the loss of human life. It weighs the likelihood over the loss of life with the cost of litigation and it is sadly true that litigation is often the only way to eliminate a known public safety risk because voluntary compliance is rarely the case.

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