Chatham Emergency Services Update

By Carey Ruppert - cruppert@chathames.org
Chief, Southside Division

Safety Alert: Keyless Cars and a Carbon Monoxide Threat

Push-button start (and stop), a popular automotive convenience feature that is standard in more than half of the 17 million vehicles sold annually in the United States, can lead to accidental death from carbon monoxide poisoning.

In a keyless car, a key fob transmits a radio signal that is recognized by the car. As long as the fob is present, the car can be started with the touch of a button or the turn of a knob. The fob can remain conveniently in the driver’s pocket or purse. What was intended as a convenience can turn into danger if the driver inadvertently leaves the car running when exiting the vehicle. Unfortunately, this is an easy thing to do without the required actions of turning the key to the off position and removing it from the ignition switch. In most keyless vehicles, you can exit with the fob and the engine will continue to run until it runs out of fuel. Bottom line, the presence of the fob is necessary to start the vehicle, but its absence plays no role in turning it off. If your car is inadvertently left running and is parked in your garage with the door closed, carbon monoxide fumes will build up and may seep into the living area, possibly harming anyone in the house.

A subset of keyless-ignition cars, hybrids and plug-in hybrids pose an even stealthier threat because they are virtually silent when in electric mode, which likely is the case when sitting still after parking. A driver of one of these hybrids doesn’t even have to be absent-minded to assume the car is shut down – after all, the engine isn’t running. But the car may not be truly off, and the engine can restart itself to take an action such as addressing a climate control need, once again leading to carbon monoxide fumes.

Currently, there is no statutory or regulatory requirement that keyless vehicles transmit an audible warning if drivers leave the engine idling and walk away with the electronic fob. Likewise, there is no requirement for vehicles to shut down automatically after a specified period of unattended idling. As a result, there is no consistency among car manufacturers and car models for these safety measures.

This is a real and growing threat. A 2018 New York Times investigation examined news reports, lawsuits, police and fire records, and incidents tracked by advocacy groups and identified 28 deaths and 45 injuries from this phenomenon since 2006. The Times report further stated that because there is no nationwide requirement to track these incidents, those numbers could be much higher.

What should you do if you are an owner of a key-less ignition car? Contact your dealer or car manufacturer and determine if your vehicle has any safety features to prevent this from happening or if it is possible to have them retrofitted. If that is not an option and you are concerned this might happen to you, I recommend you post a reminder to yourself to turn off the ignition. Consider placing the reminder in a highly visible location, possibly adjacent to the door from your garage to the inside of your house. This truly is a case where it is better to be safe than sorry.