Keyless ignition in cars can be deadly

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Keyless ignition systems with a start/stop pushbutton can be a deadly convenience in cars.

In some car models, the air conditioner is shut off by pushing a pushbutton; sometimes, the driver, after parking, turns off the aircon, but forgets to push the start/stop button, and then walks away with the key fob.

Or the driver, used to a mechanical key to switch off the engine, simply forgets to push the start/stop button.

Result: the engine is inadvertently left idling while parked, and carbon monoxide fumes billow out of the exhaust pipe.

If the car is parked in an enclosed space like a garage, the situation becomes dangerous as the carbon monoxide can leak into the house.

Deadly gas

Carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas that deprives the heart, brain and other vital organs of oxygen.

Some victims of carbon monoxide poisoning who survive live with irreversible brain damage.

Car owners who have chauffeurs are not so much at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning due to human error, as do motorists who drive their own car and then park it inside a garage with an automatically closing solid wooden door.

Fortunately, in this country, many car owners park their cars on the sidewalk or street in front of their residences. (This leads to illegal parking, but that’s another story.)

Moreover, in most residential subdivisions, open carports outnumber closed garages. Or the carport or garage is secured by a grille of widely spaced steel bars that allow automobile emissions to flow outdoors.

Additional selling point

According to a recent article in The New York Times International Edition, Germany’s premium carmaker Mercedes-Benz introduced the keyless ignition as an additional selling point for its cars in 1998: no more fumbling for car keys.

Often called the “smart key,” it is a wireless device that sends a code to the car’s computer so that the driver can start the engine by pushing a button on the dashboard, instead of inserting and turning a mechanical key in the ignition slot.

Keyless ignition entered the American market in 2002. At first, there was the risk of theft if drivers left the key fob in the car by accident.

Addressing the risk

To address this risk, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2006 updated its regulations for keyless ignition to include a sufficient warning to catch a driver’s attention before he/she exits the vehicle without the key fob.

But it was also in 2006 that the first case of carbon monoxide poisoning linked to keyless ignition was reported.

A 70-year-old woman in Florida failed to notice that she had left her car’s engine running in the garage.

The home filled with carbon monoxide and she collapsed and died, while her 89-year-old husband died in the bedroom.

In 2011, the Society of Automotive Engineers called on carmakers to install an unspecified number of beeps or a warning light when all doors are closed, and the key fob is not present and the engine is still running.

The alerts are not necessary if the engine automatically shuts off.

The NHTSA also proposed a key fob rule that would require car manufacturers to provide additional internal and external warning beeps, but the auto industry opposed these proposals.

Danger always present

By 2016, at least 21 people in the United States had died due to carbon monoxide poisoning linked to keyless ignition cars left running in enclosed spaces.

Not all the victims were elderly. In 2010, a young couple were found motionless on the bathroom floor after the woman unwittingly left her car’s engine running in the garage. She died, and her boyfriend now lives with a brain injury.

Fortunately, no incidents of carbon dioxide poisoning due to keyless ignition have been reported in the Philippines so far.

But the danger is always present, since keyless ignitions are now standard equipment in many motor vehicles sold here, even in cars that cost less than P800,000.

Previously, it was only found in luxury cars.



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