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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Five Years Later, Consumers Are Still Waiting For Safety Changes To A Popular Car Feature That Has Proven Deadly

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While keyless ignition vehicles have grown more and more in popularity over the last several years for their convenience and ease, so have more injury-causing incidents and fatalities directly attributable to these systems. According to the nonprofit organization KidsAndCars.org, at least 20 carbon monoxide deaths and hundreds of near-misses, have been linked to keyless ignition cars. Eight of those cases happened in Florida alone, killing 10 people.

In February 2011, I wrote on this very topic, questioning whether keyless ignitions are safe and is the convenience and time saved worth the potential price? By December of the same year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it believed there was a “clear safety problem” from keyless vehicles, citing carbon monoxide poisoning as a significant concern for any drivers who inadvertently leaves a vehicle running in an enclosed space, such as a garage. The agency proposed a new safety rule – an audible warning to alert drivers, and noted that the cost to implement the change would be minimal – less than $500,000 a year, for the entire industry. Yet, five years later the agency has not taken any action. In the meantime, people are dying (six reported cases in 2015 alone) which only reinforces the seriousness of this issue. Near misses have increased too with the latest case involving a Washington family of six who went to a hospital after the father unintentionally left his keyless car running in the garage as he ran into the house to tend to a sick child.

Many auto manufacturers have argued against the proposal. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, representing BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes Benz and others, said when it comes to audible alerts, it “does not believe that the agency has provided an adequate justification for these proposals.” In 2012, Nissan said that an alert inside the vehicle could cost $5, and an alert outside the vehicle could cost $30. “We believe that the assumption that keyless ignition systems are less safe compared to conventional key systems is without merit,” Nissan said. Once again, corporate America puts profits over safety.

Despite the controversy, some automakers have added software (a “kill switch”) to turn off the vehicle when the fob is not in it.  Others have added a beeping or audio alarm to warn drivers they have walked away with the fob, but failed to turn off the ignition. To date, none have recalled older vehicles already on the road to add the software.

A lawsuit filed last fall is the latest seeking to hold the automotive industry liable for defects that could make driving unsafe. It claims that the ten automakers have long known about the risks of keyless ignitions, yet deceived drivers by marketing their vehicles as safe. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to require the automakers to install an automatic shut-off feature. It also seeks compensatory and punitive damages, among other remedies.

Meanwhile, critics say the automakers are not to blame; if you are responsible enough to drive, you should be responsible enough to turn off your car. True enough; it is common sense that people who have reached their destinations and put their cars in “park” should know to turn off their vehicle. Yet, whether it is the ‘common sense’ thing to do or not, a small number of people who have keyless entry systems are forgetting and with disastrous consequences. The industry has known about these incidents for years; automobile manufacturers and designers know that people are being seriously injured or killed. While the number of deaths are low, isn’t one serious injury, one death, one too many? And there are two easy and cost effective solutions to avoid serious injury and/or death. Keyless entry is a popular feature and no one wants to go back to using keys again. However, adding a “kill switch” or an audible alarm system is a minuscule investment ($5 to $30 per Nissan) to avoid the risk.

While the NHTSA has not issued a final rule, the regulator acknowledged that whatever safety measures it takes will likely only affect newly manufactured vehicles. Regardless of any legal changes, experts advise consumers to install a carbon monoxide detector in the home.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.