Deadly Convenience: Keyless Cars and Their Carbon Monoxide Toll

Deadly Convenience: Keyless Cars and Their Carbon Monoxide Toll

Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, depriving the heart, brain and other vital organs of oxygen. Victims are sometimes found with a cherry red rash, a symptom of carbon monoxide molecules attaching to red blood cells. Some who survive live with irreversible brain damage. One couple described a life where they now struggle with severe memory loss and are dependent on hired assistants.

The gas level in Fred Schaub’s home was at least 30 times the level that humans can tolerate. His body was found in his bed, with a rash on his head and chest.

“The plants inside the house lost their leaves,” said Doug Schaub, his son.

A Risk Detected Early

The keyless ignition was introduced as a luxury feature in Mercedes-Benz vehicles in Germany in 1998, a year after Daimler-Benz filed for a German patent, and entered the American market in 2002. Some carmakers called it the “smart key,” a wireless device sending a code to the car’s computer so the driver can start the engine with a button, instead of a mechanical key. It was meant as an additional selling point for luxury cars: no more fumbling for keys.

The risk identified initially was theft, because drivers might leave the key fob in the vehicle by accident. (In conventional ignitions, under regulations adopted in the 1990s, the key cannot be removed unless the car is in park.) The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s general counsel warned automakers in 2002 that keyless ignitions would be prone to mishaps arising from human error. In 2006, the agency updated its regulations to state that with keyless ignitions, “a warning must be sufficient to catch a driver’s attention before he or she exits the vehicle without the keys.”

Two weeks later, a 70-year-old Florida woman, Jeanette Colter, failed to notice that she had left her keyless Toyota Avalon running in the garage. The home filled with carbon monoxide and she collapsed and died between the bedroom and the kitchen, according to her daughter Vickie. Her 89-year-old husband, David, died in the bedroom. They appear to have been the first victims of carbon monoxide poisoning linked to keyless vehicles.

By 2009, a number of such incidents had come to the attention of the Society of Automotive Engineers, which formed a panel to develop recommended practices to address keyless ignition hazards. The objectives included minimizing “user-instigated errors” like “exiting the vehicle while the propulsion system is enabled.”

The engineering group’s recommendations, issued in January 2011, called on carmakers to install an “externally audible or visual alert” — implying an unspecified number of beeps, or a warning light — when all doors are closed, the key fob is not present and the engine is still running. If the engine automatically shuts off, the alerts are not necessary.

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