Keyless ignitions a ‘clear safety problem,’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – A growing number of deaths and injuries from carbon monoxide poisoning has been linked to keyless ignition vehicles.

A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration declared a “clear safety problem” for keyless vehicles, which can continue running even after a driver walks away with the electronic key fob. In 2011 the agency proposed requiring loud alarms to sound if drivers accidentally leave their car running after exiting the vehicle, but has yet to force automakers to take action.

In 2009 a man left a 2009 Nissan Murano running all night in a Morresville, North Carolina garage, unaware he hadn’t turned it off. Officers arrived at the house after a report of a possible break-in and within just a few minutes of being inside the home said they started feeling sick and disoriented.

“It was one of those unknown situations,” recalls Capt. Joseph Cooke, of the Mooresville Police Department. “Their throats and eyes were burning. They knew something was wrong. They were breathing something.”

It turns out the home was full of poisonous carbon monoxide, but that was not clear because the car had been moved. Three people in the home and four police officers were taken to the hospital. All of them survived.

“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.”

However, others have not been so lucky. In 2012, Ray Harrington died in his home about 20 minutes away 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.

Kushlefsky brought a lawsuit against Toyota, the maker of Lexus, after an incident in 2009 where 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,” said Kushlefsky. He’s pushing for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require automakers to have alarm systems for keyless ignitions, but is not sure why five years after the proposal there is still no movement.

A spokesperson for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the “is considering the public comments … as it determines a path forward on issues associated with keyless ignition systems.”

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 was filed against 10 auto makers, calling on them to install an automatic shut off feature. Ford has started doing that on newer models. “Auto safety is our top priority, so the industry continues working with a standards-setting body to further develop best practices,” said the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in a statement.

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