Hazards of Keyless Ignition

By Allen Penticoff
Mr. Green Car

I had recently received a recall notice from Chevrolet on our 2013 Volt. It offers to do a software update that shuts the car off if left “ON” and not being driven for an extended period. The concern is that people may forget to turn off the car upon parking it in their garage at home and over several hours the drive battery may run out of power – this would cause the engine to automatically start and that could lead to dangerous carbon monoxide fumes entering a home with potentially lethal consequences.

I’ve not had the recall action done yet, in part because our garage is detached from the house by a considerable distance and just not having the time to do it. But I can definitely see where this may be a problem as on more than one occasion I’ve gotten out of the Volt without turning it off and had to stop myself and say, “Is it off?” I then duck back in to see the displays still lit up indicating the car has not been turned off. Oops.

In the case of a Volt, if you had run the battery down while driving, then got home to park your car, it probably would not have the engine running as you stopped since it would still be on electric power at the low speed of parking. This could lead to the potentially lethal scenario that the recall addresses. But the Volt is not the only car that this can happen to.

Many cars now come equipped with keyless ignition, and some have since the 1990s. They have an electronic key fob that allows you to unlock the doors with a touch of a button, then the car is turned on (as with the Prius and other hybrids) or is started with a push button. New cars have very quiet running engines and exhaust systems leaving open the door to Murphy’s Law – “that anything that can happen will happen” and the possibility of leaving a vehicle’s engine running while in a closed garage. Indeed there have been several deaths from this tiny mistake of failing to turn off a car in a garage.

This recently happened to a Highland Park, Illinois senior couple Pasquale and Rina Fontanini, when they failed to turn off their 2013 Lincoln MKS in the garage. It appears it may have been left on overnight. Their son Cesare arrived at their home for his usual morning visit after his shift at a nearby firehouse to find the garage door open, the car engine running and his 79-year old father lying on the garage floor unconscious. He then searched the house and found his 75-year old mother unconscious upstairs. Apparently his father had tried to clear the air, but had been overcome by the fumes. Neither survived.

While I could write about what is being done to correct this situation, I’ll limit my message here to the importance for anyone who now has a keyless ignition vehicle to be very attentive to the shutdown of their vehicle when parked in an attached garage. It happens when one is distracted by something. And a case in point is that Highland Park police often find empty vehicles left running while the owners are attending a Ravina Festival concert.

Despite the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposing that manufacturers build in a time limit and warnings for unattended vehicle operation in 2011 – it has yet to become law. Meanwhile, there are literally millions of vehicles in use now that potentially could expose their owners to a lethal dose of carbon monoxide. Once the province of luxury cars, manufacturers are finding it easier and cheaper to install keyless ignition. According to Edmunds.com, of 276 new vehicles on the market with keyless ignition, 245 of these come as standard equipment, with 31 having it available as an option. It will likely be standard on all vehicles soon, as these numbers have doubled in just the past five years.

All I can recommend is that one install a good quality CO detector in the room nearest your garage entry and be sure to have one at the bedroom level as well. If the residents are hard of hearing, it may pay to have a more elaborate system that notifies a monitoring agency that will call first responders if there is an alert and no one responds to their confirmation calls. Otherwise, all you have is your personal attention to the easily overlooked process of turning off your vehicle upon stopping in your garage. Maybe a sign on the wall or door leading into the house would help – “IS IT OFF?”

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