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The Emerging Risks Associated with Keyless Push Button Ignitions on Automobiles

Keyless ignition systems in automobiles have been around since the mid-1990s. But as their popularity has grown, presumably for their convenience and ease, so have the inherent and substantial safety risks associated with these systems.

A keyless system permits starting a car without a physical key being inserted into an ignition. Instead, a small device known as a "key fob" transmits a code to a computer in the vehicle when the fob is within a certain close range. When the coded signal matches the code embedded in the vehicle's computer, a number of systems within the car are activated, including the starter system. This allows the car to be started by simply pressing a button on the dashboard while the key fob is left in a pocket or a purse. The vehicle is usually shut down by pushing the same button.

Over the past five or six years keyless ignitions have become wildly popular, and are offered as standard or optional equipment on cars in every price range. Toyota features the "Smart Key" system and Lexus offers "Smart Access." The Ford Motor Company calls its system "Intelligent Access" and Nissan named theirs "Intelligent Key." BMW has "Comfort Access." Audi uses "Advanced Key." The General Motors system is "Passive Entry Passive Start." Hyundai offers the "Proximity Key" on many models. Mercedes offers "Keyless Go" in most of its models. Volkswagon selected the acronym "KESSY" for Keyless Entry & Keyless Start. Hundreds of thousands of keyless cars are rolling off the assembly lines each year.

As more and more keyless systems hit the streets, parking lots and garages of the United States, however, more and more fatal accidents and injury-causing incidents are being reported which are directly attributable to keyless start systems.

Noah Kushlefsky, a partner in the law firm Kreindler & Kreindler LLP in New York, recently filed a lawsuit against Toyota on behalf of people killed and injured because of this push button ignition technology. The lawsuit convincingly argues that, like many of these systems, the Toyota Smart Key violates, or at a minimum circumvents, important federal government motor vehicle safety design regulations designed to protect the public. In fact, though the dangers associated with push button starters are specific and well known, auto manufacturers are intentionally ignoring the risks as more and more cars are delivered to unsuspecting consumers.

The provisions of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114 are intended to prevent vehicle theft and the unintended rolling of unoccupied vehicles. Two specific provisions of Standard 114 are commonly known to all drivers. One requires that an automatic transmission vehicle must be placed in the "park" position before the key can be removed from the vehicle. This prevents vehicles from accidentally being left in "drive" and rolling after the driver exits. The other provision requires that a vehicle cannot be operated after the key is removed from the starting system. These are both common sense and effective solutions to common safety hazards.

In contrast, most smart key system designs allow an engine to run indefinitely after the key fob is removed from the vehicle and leaves the transmittal range. The car can be driven until is runs out of gas, provided it is not shut down. Likewise, a car can be shut down while still in the "drive" position and the key fob removed from the range of the vehicle, making the vehicle susceptible to unintended rolling.

The electronic key fob is operable without ever leaving the pocket or purse. The result? Carbon monoxide related deaths and injuries reported when cars either failed to shut down or were accidentally left running when the driver and key fob left the vehicle. Likewise, vehicles are inadvertently being left in gear after the driver leaves with the fob, allowing cars to roll and causing severe injuries and property damage.

On February 27, 2009, Mary Rivera, Ph.D., a Professor of Education Administration at Fordham University in New York, parked her new Lexus in her garage and unknowingly left it running when she exited with her key fob. This is a common mistake because the customary step of turning a key to shut down a car is a deeply ingrained behavior, and fundamental change to that behavior pattern predictably leads to mistakes. Countless drivers with a push button start vehicle report that they have made the identical mistake. In Ms. Rivera's case, carbon monoxide from the running vehicle spread throughout her home while she slept, poisoning her, causing permanent brain damage, and claiming the life of her companion, Ernest Codelia.

A growing number of reports and complaints to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that this is a growing problem which requires substantial and immediate industry-wide corrective action by manufacturers or intervention by the federal government.

Kreindler & Kreindler has begun compiling a list of accidents and incidents related to keyless ignitions systems, and Mr. Kushlefsky is established as one of the lead specialists in litigation related to keyless systems.

If you have experienced any issues with your keyless ignition vehicle, even incidents that have no led to injury, please contact us by using the form below. Submission of information to our firm is subject to the terms of our disclaimer.