Are Keyless Ignitions and Novel Vehicle Configurations Leading to More Carbon Monoxide Deaths?

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Improved vehicle design is supposed to improve the safety, performance and convenience of operating or riding in a new car, truck or SUV. However, sometimes failures in considering the big picture or driver behavior can result in unintended consequences or situations where one aspect of the vehicle experience is improved, but the improvement comes at the expense of other aspects of the operation. For instance, while touchscreen controls may provide a convenient and pleasing way to interact with a vehicle, if it is not designed properly errant touches may constitute a safety problem.

The defective products attorneys at The Reiff Law Firm are committed to informing the public about new product dangers and seeking justice for those who have been severely injured by a defective product. Our preliminary investigations show that keyless ignition designs may lead to driver confusion. One potential result of that confusion is consumers who mistakenly leave their vehicle running while in an enclosed space, like a garage, and end up suffering severe injury or death due to the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.

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Carbon Monoxide has Always Been a Concern for Gasoline Powered Vehicles

Death and injuries due to the carbon monoxide produced by combustion engines have always been a problem. However, improvements in vehicle design have mitigated many of the risks. For instance, prior to the widespread introduction of catalytic converters, the effects of carbon monoxide could be detected in individuals merely riding on the highway. One 1973 medical study found that a 90-minute trip on a freeway in the Los Angeles-area would, in 40% of individuals with a pre-existing cardiovascular condition, result in irregularities that could be detected on an EKG. At the time, roadway carbon monoxide levels regularly approached the 25 to 100 parts per a million range. For reference, OSHA standards generally prohibit long-term exposure to carbon monoxide levels above 50 parts per million.

Today, EPA emission standards and the invention of the catalytic converter has greatly reduced carbon monoxide levels on roadways. However, 13 states do not require emissions testing at all and others only require testing in certain areas. This means that even a single vehicle can cause spikes in carbon monoxide levels on the roadway. However, the greater risk today is probably the unintended operation of a vehicle in an enclosed area which can lead to dangerous concentrations of carbon monoxide. When carbon monoxide levels are high, severe injury or death can occur. Other typical reasons for vehicle carbon monoxide deaths include:

  • Operation of a vehicle with a defective exhaust system
  • Operation of a vehicle with cracks or failures in the exhaust system
  • Driving a vehicle while the trunk or rear lift-gate is open
  • Operating a vehicle with cracks or holes in its body
  • Warming the vehicle up while in an enclosed space
  • Operating a vehicle in an enclosed space

The introduction of keyless ignition systems and the re-introduction of push-button ignitions may exacerbate the likelihood and the risk of operating a vehicle in an enclosed space.

Push-Button and Keyless Ignition And Novel Gear-Shift Designs May Cause Driver Confusion

In the days before safety became a major concern – chiefly before the 1970s – integral vehicle systems were not standardized. For instance, the gear shift quadrant did not become standardized until the 1970s. The lack of standardization increased the likelihood of driver error. Gear shift configurations included:

  •  General Motors and Studebaker – These manufacturers used a Park, Neutral, Drive, Low-gear, Reverse (P-N-D-L-R) pattern. This pattern did not match the one used by other manufacturers and is unfamiliar to modern drivers. A driver who is accustomed to finding a low gear mode at the bottom of the gear shift is likely to accidentally reverse the vehicle.
  • Chevrolet – Chevys utilized the shift pattern Reverse, Neutral, Drive, Low-gear (R-N-D-L). This configuration notably lacked a dedicated parking gear. Drivers accustomed to having one were more likely to over shift. Furthermore, the unique method of placing the vehicle in park was likely to confuse drivers and result in runaway vehicles.
  • Chrysler – Chrysler Corporation utilized a push-button shifting system in vehicles with a Torqueflite or Powerflite transmissions. The push-button shifting systems were arranged in a variety of patterns and configurations including those with a horizontal orientation, a vertical orientation, and even some arranged in a diamond-like pattern. Patterns differed by vehicle, year, and model. Needless to say, this could be extremely confusing for a driver.

Today, the same concept regarding a lack of standardization can be applied to the proliferation of new keyless ignition systems.


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Will Push Button Ignitions Lead to Deaths Due to Driver Confusion?

Consider that many new vehicles, ranging from the economy to luxury class, are now equipped with keyless ignition systems. Vehicles that include keyless entry and ignition systems as a standard or optional feature include:

  • Acura RL
  • Audi A8
  • BMW M5
  • Cadillac STS
  • Chevrolets Corvette
  • Lexus LS 460
  • Toyota Prius
  • Nissan Maxima
  • Toyota Camry

In short, keyless ignition systems have become nearly pervasive, and like the gear shifts of the past, they are not standardized.  It seems that auto manufacturers have been blinded by the novelty and “wow factor” and have neglected to consider how these systems require wholesale behavioral changes by the driver.

That is, consider the typical process of starting and shutting down a vehicle. In a classic configuration where a key is required to start the vehicle, the driver must first locate his or her key, place the key in the ignition, and then turn the key to start that car or truck. When the driver turns the key there is feedback from the resistance in turning the key and due to the noise from the engine springing to life.

Similarly, when a driver turns off the engine in a traditional key-operated ignition he or she must grasp the key, turn it, and then remove it from the ignition. Removing the key provides confirmation that the vehicle has been successfully turned off. In short, the process and procedure is highly ritualized and provides ample feedback & confirmation to the driver

By contrast, keyless ignition systems require wholesale changes in driver behavior. Furthermore, these systems do not provide the same level of feedback to the driver, if they provide any at all. Keyless ignition systems can start the vehicle, provided it is within range, due to an inadvertent button push while in one’s pocket or purse. Furthermore, the vehicle engine will remain running until the driver realizes that it has been inadvertently turned on. If a car is parked in an attached garage, fumes from the running engine –including carbon monoxide – can seep into the home potentially leading to severe injury or death of the home’s occupants.

Keyless systems also present problems when a driver attempts to turn his or her vehicle off. In the old system, few experienced drivers would leave the vehicle without their keys due to the ingrained routine of turning the key and removing it. Furthermore, the driver would likely check that the keys were in his or her pocket to avoid being locked out of the vehicle. In the new system, the key is likely to already be in the driver’s pocket. The driver can park the vehicle and get out of the car – keys in pocket or purse – go about his or her activities and then return to the still running vehicle. 

hospital bed patient carbon monoxide

What Can be Done to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Deaths Due To Keyless Ignition?

Undoubtedly a good deal of study regarding driver behaviors and systems must be carried out before definitive answers can be reached, however, there are some fairly clear measures that can be implemented. First, some form of an audible warning when the vehicle is left to idle for an extended period. Ideally, the audible warning sound would sound from both the vehicle and the key FOB. Second, some form of a proximity detection system that will alert when the key moves too far away from a running vehicle could also reduce the likelihood of inadvertently leaving the vehicle running.

These are but a few of the ideas that could make keyless ignition systems safer and prevent deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning. As additional information regarding this risk becomes available we will provide updates to the public. And if you or a loved one has already suffered a serious injury or a wrongful death due to a keyless ignition system, the defective product attorneys of The Reiff Law Firm can fight to obtain compensation. We have more than 30 years of experience handling complex personal injury cases caused by product defects.

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