New Rule Coming on Keyless Ignitions After Drivers Forgetting to Turn Their Cars Off Led to 13 Deaths

Push-button starters are one of the most popular and increasingly common features on new cars, but it is also increasingly a cause of warning over possible fatal consequences.

Push-button starters allow drivers to leave keys in purses and pockets. And in many cars, just walking up to the door is enough to unlock the door. But engines are so quiet today that some people are pulling into their garages, leaving the car on, closing the garage door and heading inside their homes — with the engine running. Not good.

Carbon monoxide poisoning from the garage gets into the house under doors or through ventilation passages and harms those inside. The results can be, and have been, fatal. Some makes — Volkswagen for one — make it so you cannot lock your car with the key-fob if the engine is running. But how many of us go to lock the car in a locked garage?

An Even Bigger Issue With Super Quiet Hybrids and Electric Cars

This problem can also come into play with hybrids and extended range electrics. It’s not hard to imagine leaving the super quiet Volt or Prius plug-in on, only to have the battery wear down at idle and then the engine starts up later.

According to news reports, at least 13 people have died from this scenario, and more than two dozen have been injured. And a new class-action suit filed in Los Angeles federal court claims that automakers have known about the danger for several years.

One recent case involved a family in Issaquah, Washington in which a family of six and two firefighters had to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after the family’s Toyota Sienna minivan equipped with a keyless starter was left on in the garage and ran until the vehicle was out of gas.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been studying the issue of whether to mandate an external warning system on push-button-starter vehicles since 2011, and says it expects to enact a new rule this February.

Audible Warnings — You Left the Car Running!

Some new cars equipped with push-button starters have an audible warning that the engine is on after you walk away: Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota all have this feature.

One of the fatalities recorded was in a Lincoln equipped with a keyless starter. Darryl Morton and Judy Cora died at Morton’s Manheim Township, Pennsylvania home from carbon monoxide poisoning, officials reported six months after their deaths. The vehicle had been left running in their garage, with the fob that activated the starter still in the car.

As a result of that case, and others brought to his attention, Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) sent a letter to NHTSA urging them to enact a rule that would require all automakers to adopt a standard for alerting motorists when the car has been left on after exiting the vehicle.

“Without an alarm or automatic shutoff feature for the ignition system, drivers, families, neighbors, and emergency responders could be at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning,” said Casey’s letter to NHTSA.

Ford said, in a statement, “Ford takes the safety of our customers very seriously; the keyless ignition system has proven to be a safe and reliable innovative feature that has been well-received by customers. Ford vehicles equipped with keyless ignition alert drivers when the driver’s door is open and the vehicle’s engine is running.”

Those that do not have the audible alert include Chrysler, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Volvo.

Alerts May Not Do Enough

But alerts aren’t always sufficient, which is why a standard set by NHTSA may be needed. WSB-TV Atlanta published an investigation into vehicles with and without alert systems. In testing more than a dozen popular cars to see what happens when you leave them running and walk away with the key fob, the investigation team noted most of the cars had a dashboard display that notes that the key fob has left the vehicle (fairly useless). Some emit a low interior sound, similar to the one that reminds drivers to fasten their seat belts. But that system, too, is easy to miss. WSB noted the loudest warning came from General Motors’ Chevy Impala, which utilized the car horn for its warning.

General Motors earlier this year recalled older models of the Chevy Volt specifically to add software that would fix the issue of the extended range car’s engine coming on if the driver has left the car on and the battery engaged when parked. Newer Volts have software that will shut the car off after a few minutes if the key fob leaves the vehicle.

Whether you have a car with or without the audible alert, it would not hurt to perhaps put a sign on the wall of your garage that faces you as you park that says, “Is Engine Off?” The issue also spotlights the need for everyone to have carbon monoxide detectors, as well as smoke detectors, in their homes.


Written by David Kiley for

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