The product liability attorneys of The Reiff Law Firm have long been concerned with dangers and potential risks introduced by technological advancements and through product refinement. While the key-based ignition has been a tried and true method of starting a vehicle for decades, automakers attempt to grab their share of consumer attention by developing and implementing novel technologies that are perceived as technologically advanced and brining convenience into the life of the consumer. These efforts have included advanced in-vehicle entertainment systems, rear back-up cameras, and a bevy of other technological bells and whistles.
However, as consumer and vehicle safety advocate Ralph Nader raised in Unsafe at Any Speed in the late 1960s, when “the stylists” drive engineering and other considerations, safety and other aspects of the vehicle suffer for the benefit of aesthetic design. Nader wrote, “First…the costs of styling divert money that might be devoted to safety. Second, stylistic suggestions often conflict with engineering ideas, and since the industry holds the view that ‘seeing is selling’; style gets the priority.” At the time Nader was writing about style-driven considerations such as GM’s decisional process in choosing between latching and actuating handles and the use of chrome in vehicles that caused severe glare for the driver. Unfortunately, with the increasingly widespread deployment of keyless entry systems, it appears that safety and engineering concerns are again taking a back seat to style.
Why is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning a Risk in keyless Vehicles?
While carbon monoxide is a concern anytime combustion occurs, it is especially worrisome when it is produced within an enclosed space. When there is a lack of ventilation or exchange of fresh air, the risk is even more pronounced. The risk is also exacerbated when it is not obvious that combustion is occurring. Unfortunately, keyless ignition systems cause or can be operated under conditions where all of the foregoing risk factors are present.
Keyless ignition can present an issue because the change in approach has jettisoned the tried-and-true ritualistic behavior that prevents a driver from mistakenly leaving the vehicle running. In a traditional ignition, a driver is not only in the habit of removing the key from the ignition, but he or she must remove the key from the ignition if he or she wishes to re-enter the locked vehicle. Per federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) traditional ignitions will also provide and audible warning when the key is mistakenly left in the ignition. Thus the traditional method leverages behavioral and functional aspects to reduce the likelihood of leaving a vehicle running.
Unfortunately, the current implementations of keyless ignition technology breaks with this engrained consumer behavior, does not implement functional limitations, and fails to take additional steps to mitigate the risk of leaving a keyless vehicle running. Keyless technologies are now widely deployed under an array of brand names including:
- Comfort Access (BMW)
- Adaptive Remote Start & Keyless Access (Cadillac)
- Keyless Drive (Volvo)
- Advanced Key (Audi)
- Keyless Enter-N-Go (Chrysler)
- Proximity Key (Hyundai)
- Smart Access System (Lexus)
- Advanced Keyless Entry & Start System (Mazda)
- Keyless Go (Mercedes-Benz)
- Porsche Entry & Drive System (Porsche)
- Keyless Entry & Keyless Start or KESSY (Volkswagen)
- Personal Car Communicator “PCC” and Keyless Drive or Keyless Drive (Volvo)
Keyless ignition systems are also available in many other varieties and as after-market add-ons produced by third-parties. Consumers should consider that the risks presented by these after-market kits and other variations of the technology are similar.
Deaths Caused Due to Carbon Monoxide from Smart Ignition Vehicles
Unfortunately, deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning due to a keyless vehicle that is left running are more common than one would think. Consumers have raised the issue with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for nearly a decade.
One example of the catastrophic consequences a keyless vehicle that is mistakenly left running can cause is illustrated by the tragic events that led to the death of Chastity Glisson and life-altering injuries to her boyfriend. On Aug. 26, 2010, Chastity Glisson parked her Lexus IS 250 in the garage to make room in the driveway for her boyfriend’s vehicle. Ms. Glisson apparently mistakenly left her wireless key-fob equipped vehicle running and entered the home. At some point during the evening, the concentration of carbon monoxide reached levels where Ms. Glisson became incapacitated. Her boyfriend found her body in the third-floor bathroom, but he too was soon overcome by the build-up of carbon monoxide fumes. The couple was found the next day. 29-year-old Ms. Glisson was found dead due to carbon monoxide poisoning. Her boyfriend suffered catastrophic injuries that required 10 days of hospitalization.
This fact pattern is not uncommon. In 2010 a Queens New York Lawyer was killed and his companion was left with brain damage after their 2008 Lexus EX 350 equipped with keyless ignition was accidentally left running in the home’s attached garage. The autopsy on the lawyer revealed that he passed with a 65 percent concentration of carbon monoxide in his blood. The companion, a former college professor, suffered severe and permanent brain damage due to the carbon monoxide exposure. News reports from the time of the accident indicate that the vehicle was new to the couple and they may not have been aware that the vehicle could run when the key was removed or the fact that it was easy to leave the key behind in a running car.
This type of tragedy has also struck in the Philadelphia-area. In 2013, Darryl Morton, 50, and Aida Judy Cora, 54, died after a vehicle was left running in Morton’s Manheim home’s attached garage. The Lincoln vehicle was equipped with a keyless ignition system. Investigators determined that their cause of death was carbon monoxide produced by the car.
There are at least 13 known deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning by a keyless ignition vehicle.
NHTSA Proposed Rules for Keyless Ignitions in 2011 and Opened a Compliance Probe in 2014
FMVSS 114 is concerned with the regulation of vehicles’ theft protection, rollaway prevention, and keyless ignition systems. Many safety advocates argue that vehicles equipped with keyless ignition systems are already in violation of FMVSS 114 because although key fobs are marketed as keys, they are not treated as such during federal compliance testing. Furthermore, these systems may violate FMVSS 114 because the driver can remove the key from the vehicle while the car or truck is still running. That is, there is no key-locking mechanism in place on these vehicles. However, NHTSA had pushed to strengthen and adapt this rule to changing technological circumstances back in 2011. Reasons for the revised standard includes consumer complaints regarding drivers’ inability to stop a moving vehicle while in a panic state or drivers who inadvertently leave the vehicle running thereby increasing the risk of carbon monoxide and rollaway injuries.
The revised standards would attempt to mitigate the risks presented by keyless ignition systems in a number of ways. First, the proposed standard included a standardization requirement Under the proposed FMVSS 114 the operations of controls used to operate a vehicle in lieu of a physical key would be standardized. Such an approach would begin to establish a ritualized behavior that will become engrained with time regardless of the vehicle make or model – much like with traditional ignitions. Furthermore, the proposed revisions would also mandate an audible warning for when drivers:
- Attempt to turn off the keyless vehicle without first placing the vehicle into “park.”
- Leave their car or truck without placing their vehicle into “park.”
- Leave their vehicle without turning off the engine.
Quite notably, the proposed FMVSS 114 standard does not include a provision for an automatic shut-off feature in keyless entry vehicles. This approach is somewhat perplexing because while an audible warning can, indeed, remind a driver to turn off his or her vehicle the real goal is simply to ensure that the vehicle is not left running while unattended. Furthermore, certain conditions and characteristics of vehicle owners may render audible warnings less effective or ineffective. A deaf individual would derive no safety benefit from an approach that relies solely on an audible warning. A person who is hard-of-hearing would likely derive only limited, if any, benefit. In any case, the assumption that all individuals would be served solely by audible warnings neglects to consider conditions that are relatively common among the general population. In any case, an automatic shut-down feature would likely make it nearly impossible to inadvertently leave a keyless ignition vehicle running for a period of time that would result in sufficient concentrations of carbon monoxide to cause serious injury or death.
Senator Calls for Regulation of these Vehicles to Prevent Deaths
The Unified Agenda, as set forth by the Office of the Federal Register in the Fall of 2014, states that a Final Rule was expected to be adopted by November of 2015. Such action has not yet occurred. On Nov. 20, 2015, Senator Casey of Pennsylvania sent a letter to NHTSA asking the agency to expedite its rule-making process before more deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning by way of keyless ignitions occur. Casey wrote to NHTSA that, “Without an alarm or automatic shutoff feature for the ignition system, drivers, families, neighbors, and emergency responders could be at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning.”
The Senator’s statement reveals several noteworthy risks regarding this danger. First, when a keyless ignition vehicle is left running in an attached garage, the consequences are not limited to the individual who actually made the error. Rather, all people in the building – whether it is a home, townhouse, duplex, or other structure – are placed at risk. In other words, a single easily made mistake can result in the death of an entire family. If homes are attached, as in the case of many townhomes, it is theoretically possible that the gas could enter multiple units at sufficient concentrations to cause serious neurological problems and other injuries or death. Likewise, as in the case of Ms. Glisson’s boyfriend who unknowingly entered a home filled with carbon monoxide, the fumes can quickly overwhelm a person and result in the loss of consciousness. For paramedics and other first-responders who are unlikely to know about an unintended running vehicle in the home, this fact presents a serious risk to their health, well-being, and ability to continue serving the community.
Have You Been Injured Due to Carbon Monoxide Poisoning from a Keyless Vehicle?
Individuals who purchase a car, truck, van, or other vehicles sold on the open market should receive a product that clearly complies with all federal safety standards. When there is a question as to whether a vehicle or technology complies with the rules, there is a high likelihood that an increased risk for catastrophic injury or death is present. In any case, auto manufacturers should take all reasonable measures to ensure that features and technology do not unreasonably increase the odds of a life-altering injury.
If you have been seriously injured by a keyless entry & ignition vehicle or if a loved one has been killed in a vehicle rollaway or carbon monoxide incident, the experienced attorneys of The Reiff Law Firm may be able to fight for you. For more than three decades they have handled personal injury actions and injuries caused by defective products. To schedule a free and confidential keyless ignition vehicle injury consultation call (215) 246-9000 or contact us online today.