The Dangers of Keyless Ignition Systems

Buy a new car today and it’s likely to be missing something you traditionally expect with a car — a key.  Starting about 5 years ago, keyless ignition systems became very popular with vehicle manufacturers.  Consumers were drawn to the system because of the convenience of not fumbling around for your keys while you’re entering your car plus safety factors of not being distracted while you’re approaching your car. Who hasn’t been frustrated by not being able to find your keys in your purse (or your wife not being able to find her keys in her purse)?

A problem quickly became apparent, though, once the systems hit the market.  People would get out of their cars without turning them off.  This was even more prevalent with the gasoline/electric hybrid vehicles when the motors might not be running and making noise when the passenger left the car.  Thus, the driver could believe the car was off and not realize it was still running.

Early accounts of this problem arose in 2010, when a 29 year old Florida woman died after she left her vehicle running in her garage.  This was followed by a death in New York and, in 2012, the death of Harry Pitt, a former superintendent of Montgomery County Schools, who died in his Washington, D.C. home after accidentally leaving his vehicle running in his garage.   In these instances, carbon monoxide filled the garage and the homes where the vehicle owners were sleeping, causing their deaths.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) recognized this problem in December 2011, declaring this defect a “clear safety problem”.  NHTSA proposed reforms to address this defect but those were not enacted. According to a class action filed last week, there have been at least 13 deaths linked to this type of system.

Automobile manufacturers have recently addressed this defect.  General Motors modified the new Chevy Volt.  The car will shut off after a few minutes once the key fob leaves the vehicle.  General Motors went a step further, recalling older Chevy Volt vehicles to install an automatic shut off that will power off the car after it has idled for a certain period of time.  Unfortunately, not all manufacturers followed suit.

Apparently, the “auto off” feature can be added to even older vehicles with this technology merely through changing the software code that communicates between the key fob and the ignition.  “The fixes are very simple because they’re simply a reflash of software,” said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies and a consultant on the recent class action.

The suit, filed against Toyota, Ford, Nissan, Honda, BMW, Volkswagen, Bentley, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and Kia, seeks to force the companies to install the inexpensive automatic shut-down feature on all affected vehicles.  One death from a defective product is one death too many.  These manufacturers should voluntarily install the “auto off” features.  Unfortunately, they have made a different choice.

Wrongful death lawsuits often result from product liability cases where a defective or poorly designed product results in the death of a person. Loved ones of a person killed due to an unreasonably dangerous product can potentially recover damages in a civil action against the entity whose negligent or wrongful act resulted in the death.

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