A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: There are hidden risks to push-button start automobiles — mainly, they are easy to leave on

Keyless ignition systems in automobiles also known as “Smart Keys” have been around since the mid-1990s. But as their acceptance and popularity has grown due to their convenience, so have the inherent and substantial safety risks associated with these systems, providing a striking example of the law of unintended safety consequences.

On more than one occasion I have arrived at my destination with my wife, driving her vehicle, only to exit the vehicle thinking that I had turned her keyless ignition off, when in fact I had not. Maybe it’s because I am not accustomed using a keyless entry, maybe because I was distracted or simply it has something to do with age, but either way it has happened.

This probably wouldn’t be too concerning, but I am haunted with the memory of Buford Simmons death, also known as Coach Simmons to those who attended Beaumont Middle School during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

The year was 1996 when Coach Simmons (45) his wife Vicky, 41; and sons Clay, 13 and Jeremy, 10 were all found dead in their home in Lexington, victims of carbon monoxide poisoning after their vehicle was accidently left running in their garage.

In fact just a few weeks ago Tim McKune a good friend and ex-classmate of mine mentioned to me that he was one of the first responders for one of the utility companies to arrive on that scene that day, and that memory still haunts him to this day.

The carbon monoxide poisoning threat was real then, and with tens of millions of vehicles with keyless push start systems parked in our garages today, that threat has grown significantly since Mr. Simmons and his family’s death.

A keyless push start system allows drivers to start a car a car without a physical inserted a key into an ignition. In the place of a key, automakers now use a small device known as a “key fob” that 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, the starter system is activated. This allows the driver to start the vehicle 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.

Because of their popularity automakers have been installing or making keyless ignitions optional in just about every model available to consumers and as a result more and more of these vehicles are on our streets than ever before.

The problem is that most smart key system allows an engine to run indefinitely after the key fob is removed from the vehicle and leaves the transmittal range. The car can be driven or left on until is runs out of gas, provided it is not shut down.

Today carbon monoxide related deaths and injuries are occurring at a higher rate than ever before, as more and more drivers fail to shut down their keyless ignition system, accidentally leaving their vehicles running running when the driver and key fob left the vehicle.

This is a common mistake drivers are making because of their deeply ingrained behavior of turning a key to shut down a car. Any fundamental change to a behavior pattern predictably leads to these type of mistakes. People that have been driving for years are simply hardwired to think that ‘no key in the ignition, then vehicle must be off.”

These current keyless ignition systems have “an inherent design defect,” according to many consumer safety advocates and experts. Some say that auto manufacturers basically changed the relationship between the driver and the key, without adequately warning them of the resulting safety hazards. When drivers are disassociated from the car by removing the mechanical key, it’s an easy step to forget to turn off a vehicle.

According to an article in consumer report a subset of keyless-ignition cars, hybrids and plug-in hybrids, pose an even stealthier problem; because they are virtually silent when in electric mode, which they may well be when sitting still after parking. Drivers don’t have to be absent-minded to assume that the car is shut down — after all, the engine isn’t running. But the car may not be truly off. The engine could restart itself; say to address a climate control need, potentially sending carbon monoxide into the residence.

An uncountable number of drivers with a push-button start vehicle are reporting that they have made the identical mistake. Consequently if it goes undetected, carbon monoxide from the running vehicle exhaust system will then slowly creep into the house, often times while the occupants sleep, poisoning them, causing permanent brain damage, and death if not detected in timely manner.

In December 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said keyless vehicles posed a “clear safety problem” and it proposed rules to require an exterior alarm system to warn drivers who walk away from a car that’s still running or capable of starting without the fob being present. Six years have passed and the agency has still not taken any action.

Critics of the NHTSA’s proposed rule say that this won’t solve the problem because it would only require a warning alarm that the car is running and instead want an automatic engine shut-off installed on all new cars with keyless ignitions. Such a fix wouldn’t be too costly and from what I read, it is simply a software update to the vehicle’s computer.

On newer models some manufacturers are now installing kill switches that kill the ignition if the vehicle is left idling too long after the smart key has left the detectable range of the vehicle.

But for those of us driving vehicles without these new safety features, we are going to have to wait for the auto industry, the government and class action lawsuit plays itself out before we see any kind of recall to fix the problem.

In the interim, the pressing question –is what I can do to prevent myself from becoming a victim?

The way I see it you have two choices:

Forced Reminders
The first thing you can do is to remember to pull out your keyless ignition smart key from your pocket or purse and place it in your center console or even your cup-holder, after entering your vehicle. This will force you to remember to reach for the key, reminding you to disengage the ignition. You can also leave sticky notes as well.

Carbon Monoxide Detectors
If you don’t have one in your home, install one today. Carbon monoxide detectors should be installed on each floor of your home and if you are prone to forgetting things like leaving your car running, you should even consider installing one in your garage. Costs of these carbon monoxide detectors have dropped significantly and can be found for less than $20 a piece these days.

Be Safe My Friends


Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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  1. Alan LaRue says:

    “The first thing you can do is to remember to pull out your keyless ignition smart key from your pocket or purse and place it in your center console or even your cup-holder, after entering your vehicle.”

    I don’t really understand the benefit of this. If you have the fob in your pocket or purse, if you exit the vehicle with it running it will beep at you in a persistent fashion. If you put the fob somewhere in the car and exit the vehicle without it, the vehicle has no way of knowing that you’ve walked away with the engine running and it will give you no warning.

    I don’t know how other cars with keyless ignition work, but in my Toyota, if I follow your suggestion I’ve defeated the safety feature and left myself vulnerable.


  2. Janette Fennell says:

    GREAT article! …and very sage advice.

    Please take these warnings seriously.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Someone should file a class action against the car manufacturers. If you walk away from the car with the key, and the car is running, it should stop after a few minutes top, or once the key fob is out of range. It should ALWAYS turn off if the keyfob is not in range and someone drives the car so that car thefts using range extenders can be made difficult. There must be some calculus in an executive’s head about how much would this cost vs the cost of fixing it. But this change can be made via software upgrade anytime the car is in for service.

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