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Carbon monoxide, rollaway concerns fuel fight for keyless car safety standards

Consumer Investigations

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — In the seven years since her father died, Suzi Zitser has been fighting for new safety standards on keyless cars.

“I just don’t think people are hearing enough about this,” Zitser told Target 12 during an interview at her home in Connecticut.

Suzi and her dad, Jerry Zitser, shared a love of the Yankees.

“We’d call before the game or wait until the first inning,” she said.

So Suzi knew something was wrong when her 86-year-old father didn’t answer the phone a couple of innings into a night game in 2012.

When first responders found him, it was too late.

“My father was sitting in his recliner and the Yankee game was on and he was dead,” Zitser recalled.

Earlier in the day, Jerry Zitser pulled into his garage with a full tank of gas and accidentally left his keyless car running. He died after carbon monoxide seeped into his Florida home for hours. Suzi said his key fob was in his shirt pocket.

“People think that when you’re a certain distance from the car and you have that key, the engine is going to shut off,” Zitser said. “That’s not the case at all.”

Auto safety expert Sean Kane says at least 34 people nationwide have died this way.

“The manufacturer tells you the fob is the key. It is not the key,” Kane said. “It doesn’t play any role in shutting the car down, but we think it’s the key.”

That coupled with the fact that car engines are quieter now, Kane says it’s easy to understand how people leave their vehicles running.

But one automaker argues the risk has not increased as keyless vehicles become more common.

In a statement to Target 12, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles U.S. said “The Consumer Product Safety Commission has tracked accidental carbon monoxide poisoning injuries both prior to and following the introduction of push-button vehicle ignition. Despite the emergence of push-button ignitions more than a decade ago, CPSC statistics demonstrate no increase in such injuries when compared to traditional rotary key ignition systems.”

Kane says keyless cars are also prone to rollaway incidents because some can be turned off without being put into park.

“One slip, one mistake, and you can end up in a situation whereas you’re stepping out of the car it’s going to roll away,” Kane said. 

In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) acknowledged the safety concerns. There was even proposal for new safety standards but eight years later, the rules still haven’t changed.

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal as proposed a bill – the Protecting Americans from the Risks of Keyless Ignition Technology Act, or PARK IT Act – that he said would address both risks; carbon monoxide poisoning and rollaway incidents.

If the proposal becomes law, the NHTSA would have to mandate automatic shutoffs and locking features that would engage if someone tried to get out of a keyless car that wasn’t in park.

“It’s going to take an act of Congress to force this federal agency to do its job,” Kane added.

Some automakers already have keyless ignition safety features in their vehicles, like new Fords, which will shut off within 30 minutes if they’re accidentally left idling.

“Both technologies are in place,” Kane said. “This is basically taking what some manufacturers decided to do and it would require them, all manufacturers to do.”

Many cars also beep or make noises if a driver walks away with the fob while the vehicle is still running.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents a dozen carmakers in the U.S., said federal law already addresses rollaway risks and automakers are current with other safety standards.

“Our position is that current keyless ignition system designs generally follow the recommended practices of the Society of Automotive Engineers, addressing operating logic, indication of vehicle ignition/control status and the physical control characteristics of keyless ignition systems. SAE recommendations also focus on uniform labeling to help provide consumers with a better understanding of how keyless systems function,” said Wade Newton, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Target 12 reached also reached out to the major carmakers. Some weighed in on the PARK IT Act: 

  • “Toyota’s current Smart Key System meets or exceeds all relevant federal safety standards in the U.S., and we will continue to comply with all applicable standards.”
  • “General Motors thanks Senator Blumenthal for his leadership and supports the spirit of the PARK IT Act. This legislation reflects GM’s continued dedication to advancing automotive safety as evidenced with the implementation of our ‘Extended Parking’ and ‘Electronic Precision Shift’ technologies on many Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac models. We look forward to working with the Senator to advance automotive safety.” 
  • “Ford remains committed to safety and supports the principle of this bill. We will continue to work with Congress as it lays out its legislative agenda on vehicle safety.”

Zitser believes the PARK IT Act would help protect other families from the pain she has experienced.

“There isn’t a day that goes by where I think of something I want to ask him and I can’t,” Zitser said. “It’s a simple fix, and no one has to die anymore.”

NHTSA did not respond to a request for comment.

Susan Campbell (scampbell@wpri.com) is the Call 12 for Action and Target 12 consumer investigator for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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