Knoxville woman returns car over 'Smart Key' warning

Knoxville woman returns car over 'Smart Key' warning

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Cars with smart keys use a remote like this one. Cars with smart keys use a remote like this one.
In the car, the driver pushes a power button to start the engine. In the car, the driver pushes a power button to start the engine.
"If she hadn't read it, I would have been in the car. I don't know what would have happened, maybe it would have knocked me out. I don't know what it would have done," Barbara Digregorio says. "If she hadn't read it, I would have been in the car. I don't know what would have happened, maybe it would have knocked me out. I don't know what it would have done," Barbara Digregorio says.

By DON DARE
6 On Your Side Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) -- Some new vehicles are so advanced you don't need a key to start the engine. But pacemaker and defibrillator patients should take notice of a disclaimer warning them to consult their doctors about vehicles like these.

Mercedes-Benz created the so-called "advanced key" or "keyless entry system." Now, just about every car manufacturer has a version of the device under different names.

Toyota calls its system the "Smart Key." Dianne Digregorio, of Knoxville, drives a new Toyota Rav4.

It's her second new Toyota in a month. The first one was a Prius, which came equipped with a smart key.

"I read the manual cover to cover and in the manual, there is one line that says, 'People with a pacemaker cannot get within three feet of the car.' As soon as I read that, I took the car right back," Dianne says. 

The reason for the swap has to do with Dianne's 82-year-old mother, Barbara Digregorio. She has a pacemaker that sends an electrical signal if her heart slows down. It keeps her heart beating in the right rhythm.

"Well, you don't click the smart key. That's the thing. There is no clicking. It just sits in your pocket," Dianne says. 

With a smart key, as soon as the driver is within about three feet of the car, a sensor in the key unlocks the door by sending a radio pulse to antennas in the car. When the driver presses the brake and pushes the starter button, the engine starts.

Toyota's manual has a warning for pacemaker and defibrillator patients. It says the smart key may interfere with some pacemakers or cardiac defibrillators.

"If she hadn't read it, I would have been in the car. I don't know what would have happened, maybe it would have knocked me out. I don't know what it would have done," Barbara says. 

Dr. William Lindsay, with East Tennessee Heart Consultants has a smart key for his Toyota Avalon.

Lindsay is a heart doctor who specializes in electrophysiology. That means he starts and  monitors pacemakers and defibrillators in patients.

6 On Your Side asked Lindsay if a Smart Key system could affect Barbara's pacemaker.

"This morning, I called all three companies in the United States that make these pacemakers and defibrillators. Two of them said they have not found any problems with either pacemakers or defibrillators and one said that they're still doing testing," Lindsay says. 

A report by Boston Scientific Pacemakers found a problem with devices marketed in Japan, but not the U.S.

"They found a few pacemakers that if you were too close to the antenna in the car itself that it might inhibit your device, inhibit the pacemaker from inhibiting the electrical beat when it needed to," Lindsay explains. 

Dr. Lindsay says the key fob itself won't affect pacemakers and defibrillators. He suggests that when getting in or out of a car, pacemaker patients should stay about 9 to 12 inches away from areas where Smart Key antennas are installed.

Also, the Smart Key system can be deactivated.

Could the antennas in the car affect a patient's pacemaker? Boston Scientific says it doesn't know and that's why testing continues.

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