Keyless ignition dangers

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In December 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the US posted a public notice in the Federal Register saying it believed vehicles equipped with the keyless ignition feature posed a “clear safety problem,” citing carbon monoxide poisoning as a significant concern for any drivers who inadvertently leave a vehicle running in an enclosed space, such as a garage. The agency proposed new safety rules, but nearly four years later the proposals have yet to be implemented.

This failure is despite at least 13 known deaths from carbon monoxide poisonings linked to keyless ignitions since 2009 and consumer complaints about how easy it is to leave keyless cars running.

Just last month, a driver in Woodmere, New York, filed a complaint with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration describing how his wife “thought she had pushed the button to turn off the engine and exited the car taking the smart key with her.” But the next morning the couple discovered the car had been running all night. The car was hot to the touch and fire officials called to the scene explained that the family “could very easily have been killed and the entire structure could have burned from the heat.”

Current federal regulations require cars with a traditional key to shut down if it is removed from the ignition. No such rule protects drivers of keyless ignition cars, which can continue running even after a driver walks away, taking the electronic key fob needed to start the engine. NHTSA has proposed requiring loud warning alarms to sound if drivers accidentally leave their car running after exiting the vehicle with their fob. The agency determined the costs to the industry would be “minimal” to implement the fix, but it did not instruct automakers to take action.

NHTSA has proposed requiring a louder alert of at least 85 decibels if the key fob is removed from a car while its engine is running. The alarm would be similar to the sound level of a smoke alarm and audible both inside and outside the vehicle.

NHTSA, in its 2011 posting in the Federal Register, said the costs to implement the change would be minimal, writing, “Given that we believe the total costs of this proposal would be relatively small, certainly less than $500,000 a year, for the entire industry, preventing even one serious injury over three years would make the proposed rule cost-beneficial.”

Many automakers have argued against the proposal.

“We believe the 85 (decibel) alerts proposed by NHTSA are too loud and may interfere with the driver responding to the alert in an orderly manner,” Nissan said in a 2012 public comment to NHTSA.

Other automakers issued similar public comments.

The agency tested 34 vehicles from model years 2013 and 2014 from seven manufacturers and found none met the proposed standard of 85 decibels, according to letters written from NHTSA to manufacturers on Jan. 28, 2014, and released through the Freedom of Information Act to the private safety firm Safety Research & Strategies Inc.

“The agency clearly sees that vehicles on the road today have inadequate safety measures,” said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also supports the proposed NHTSA action but urges the agency to go even further.

David G. Kidd, a research scientist at IIHS said NHTSA’s proposed one-second brief alert on the exterior of the car might cause drivers to mistakenly think the danger has passed once the warning stopped sounding. The group proposed requiring the alert to cycle at regular intervals.

“Audible alerts are a useful method for alerting drivers to unsafe conditions and should help alleviate rollaway, theft, and carbon monoxide risks,” Kidd said. “We support the proposed countermeasures and encourage the agency to strengthen them.”