Keyless Ignition Safety Issue: Should Federal Regulators Intervene?

Keyless ignitions are typically associated with convenience or theft-deterrence, and not with a risk of fatality. However, consider the combination of a keyless ignition and quiet engine, along with an enclosed space and little forgetfulness. The potential consequences—carbon monoxide poisoning. Prompted in part by the tragic death of a Highland Park couple last week, the Chicago Injury Attorneys of Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. comment on the dangers of keyless ignitions, and more importantly, the failure of federal regulators to take action to address a safety issue that they have been aware of for years.

As reported by the Tribune, 79-year-old Pasquale Fontanini, and his 75-year-old wife, Rina, met their early demise last week, when they left their keyless Lincoln running in the garage, causing an accumulation of lethal levels of carbon monoxide. The circumstances surrounding this incident demonstrate just how toxic carbon monoxide can be. Apparently the victims did have a carbon monoxide detector, which appears did alert them. Unfortunately, the detector was in the house, and not the garage. According to the victim’s son, he found his father and the CM detector downstairs, along with an open garage door, evidencing that Mr. Fontanini may have noticed the running car and attempted to air out the space, but was overcome by the fumes. Mrs. Fontanini was found unconscious upstairs. Authorities say both suffered fatal carbon monoxide poisoning.

As injury attorneys that practice product liability law, we find the risk of CM poisoning associated with keyless ignitions to be worthy of immediate action by the federal government, and for several reasons.

First, the Fontaninis were not the first victims to suffer fatality in this manner. In fact, CM-poisoning injuries and deaths linked to keyless ignitions have raised concerns since they were introduced in the 1990s. While the number of documented incidents involving keyless ignitions is relatively small, this in and of itself, should not be a cause for federal regulators delay in taking action. Further, there is no reporting requirement, which could lead to CM incidents being grouped into the larger group of all carbon monoxide poisonings, and as a result cause underreporting of incidents specifically related to keyless ignitions.

Second, the number of vehicles with standard or optional keyless ignitions has nearly doubled in the past five years, from 144 in 2010 models, to 276 in 2015 models. Further, automakers are increasingly opting to include keyless ignitions as standard equipment on vehicles, as opposed to optional. In fact, of the 276 models in 2015, 89% came standard with keyless starts, compared to only 69% in 2010. If trends continue at their current rates, we can expect to see keyless ignitions offered as standard equipment in virtually all new models within the next few years.

Third, the solutions suggested to remedy the issue of CM poisonings related to keyless ignitions are fairly simple—federal regulators should require automakers to include either an audible alarm or an automatic shut-off when a vehicle is left running (or both). Currently, automakers are only required to include an indicator that the vehicle is running, but many vehicles only have an in-dash indicator, which does little to address the core cause of keyless related CM deaths—motorists that exit the vehicle without realizing that it is still running.

Despite proposed rulemaking offered by the NHSTA in December of 2011 that addressed safety issues with keyless ignitions, the problems still remain. If automakers are not required to include audible alarms or automatic shut-offs in vehicles equipped with keyless ignitions, then consumers must rely on them voluntarily doing so. While some automakers have, many have not. As more and more vehicles are produced with this technology, the longer federal regulators wait to intervene, the larger the problem will become. As attorneys that represent the injured and family members of the deceased, we believe that immediate action by the federal government is necessary in order to protect consumers in the future.

If you were harmed or a loved one was killed in an incident related to a keyless ignition, or some other vehicle component, you may be entitled to financial compensation. Contact the Chicago Personal Injury Attorneys of Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. at 773-516-4100, or by sending us a message online, and allow us to evaluate your matter, free of charge, and explain your legal rights and options.