Proposed Keyless Ignition Alert Rule May Have Prevented Carbon Monoxide Deaths

A recently filed lawsuit alleges that 10 automakers concealed the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in more than five million vehicles with keyless ignitions, resulting in 13 deaths. Meanwhile, a federal regulator’s four-year-old proposal for an alert that could have saved some lives continues to go unimplemented.

Scripps News reports that back in December 2011 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration posted a public notice [PDF] in the Federal Register saying it believed that vehicles with keyless ignitions posed a “clear safety problem.”

The agency went on to note that carbon monoxide poisoning was a “significant concern” for drivers who inadvertently leave a vehicle running in an enclosed space.

As a result of these findings, NTHSA proposed a rule that would required manufacturers implement an alert in vehicles equipped with keyless ignitions to alert drivers that the car is still running.

Under the proposed rule, the alert would sound at at least 85 decibels if the key fob is removed from a car while the engine is running.

NHTSA says in the notice that the proposal was created as a response to a review of consumer complaints to the Office of Defects Investigation.

“While we recognize that this is not the traditional data base upon which our agency typically bases a rulemaking, we believe that, in this instance, we are addressing an emerging safety issue,” the posting states. “We believe that the new alert that we are proposing would refocus the driver’s attention on the vehicle when s/he is leaving if s/he has inadvertently left the propulsion system active.”

According to Scripps the resulting sound would have been on par with that of a smoke alarm; easily audible inside and outside of the car.

NHTSA claimed in its Federal Register posting that the cost for the louder alert would be minimal.

“Given that we believe the total costs of this proposal would be relatively small, certainly less than $500,000 a year, for the entire industry, preventing even one serious injury over three years would make the proposed rule cost-beneficial,” the notice stated.

While safety advocates saw NHTSA’s proposal as a step toward ensuring consumer safety, the slow progress since the 2011 notice is disheartening.

“The agency clearly sees that vehicles on the road today have inadequate safety measures,” Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, tells Scripps.

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety backed NHTSA’s proposal, even directing the agency to require the alert be broadcast at regular intervals until the engine is shut off.

“Audible alerts are a useful method for alerting drivers to unsafe conditions and should help alleviate rollaway, theft, and carbon monoxide risks,” David G. Kidd, a research scientist at IIHS, tells Scripps. “We support the proposed countermeasures and encourage the agency to strengthen them.”

Still, four years later, the proposal remains simply a suggestion, and many vehicles with keyless ignitions continue to include nominal alerts.

Scripps reports that a NHTSA administered test of 34 model year 2013 and 2014 vehicles with keyless ignitions from various auto makers found that none met the proposed 85 decibel standards.

That’s because many automakers balked at the idea of implementing the safety feature, Scripps reports.

In a 2012 public comment to NHTSA on the issue, Nissan said the company believed the 85 decibel rate was too loud and would “interfere with the driver responding to the alert in an orderly manner.”

Still, according to Scripps, seven of the deaths referenced in the class-action suit filed in August occurred after the regulators’ proposal, some of which could have been prevented had the rules moved forward.

One such death occurred just three months after NTHSA’s proposal appeared in the Federal Register. In that case, a North Carolina man died from carbon monoxide position in his home after inadvertently leaving his 2011 Chrysler 300c running in the first floor garage.

Noah Kushlefksy, a lawyer – who doesn’t represent the man’s family, but has represented other affected by keyless ignition carbon monoxide poisonings – tells Scripps that the amount of time that’s gone by since the NHTSA proposal and any actual action is unconscionable.

“Every death today could be prevented,” he said. “I honestly can’t conceive of the amount of time that has gone by that we have recognized a problem and we’ve recognized that people are dying and done nothing.”

Keyless ignition deaths mount as regulators slow to act [Scripps News]

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