Beware the Push-Button Starter: Are You in Danger?

Push Button Starter
Push button starter: some consumers are forgetting to use it to turn the car off, too. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Can keyless ignitions cause a driver’s death when forgetting to turn their cars off? The answer is yes.

Push-button starters are one of the most popular and common features on new cars, but it is also increasingly a cause of warning over possible fatal consequences.

Push-button starters allow drivers to leave keys in purses and pockets. And in many cars, just walking up to the door is enough to unlock the door. But engines are so quiet today that some people are pulling into their garages, leaving the car on, closing the garage door and heading inside their homes–with the engine running. Not good.

Carbon monoxide poisoning from the garage gets into the house under doors or through ventilation passages and harms those inside. The results can be and have been, fatal. Some makes–Volkswagen for one–make it so you cannot lock your car with the key-fob if the engine is running. But how many of us go to lock the car in a locked garage?

Ush-Button Starter

The Ford Mustang smart key; with the key in a pocket or purse, owners need just push the starter button to start the car. Photo: Scotty Reiss

This is An Even Bigger Issue with Super Quiet Hybrids and Electric Cars.

This problem can also come into play with hybrids and extended range electrics. It’s not hard to imagine leaving the super quiet Volt or Prius plug-in on, only to have the battery wear down at idle and then the engine starts up later.

According to the New York Times, there have been several injuries (including brain damage) and deaths. It was discovered that at least 28 people have died and 45 were injured after accidentally leaving their cars running. So what’s taken so long for action to be taken? A new class-action suit filed in Los Angeles federal court claims that automakers have known about the danger for several years.

One case involved a family in Issaquah, WA in which a family of six and two firefighters had to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after the family’s Toyota Sienna minivan equipped with a keyless starter was left on in the garage and ran until the vehicle was out of gas.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been studying the issue of whether to mandate an external warning system on push-button-starter vehicles since 2011.


Photo credit: Ripped Jeans and Bifocals

Audible Warnings – You Left the Car Running!

Some new cars equipped with push-button starters have an audible warning that the engine is on after you walk away: Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota all have this feature.

One of the fatalities recorded was in a Lincoln equipped with a keyless starter. Darryl Morton and Judy Cora died at Morton’s Manheim Township, PA home from carbon monoxide poisoning, officials reported six months after their deaths. The vehicle had been left running in their garage, with the fob that activated the starter still in the car.

As a result of that case, and others brought to his attention, Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) sent a letter to NHTSA urging them to enact a rule that would require all automakers to adopt a standard for alerting motorists when the car has been left on after exiting the vehicle.

“Without an alarm or automatic shutoff feature for the ignition system, drivers, families, neighbors, and emergency responders could be at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning,” said Casey’s letter to NHTSA.

Alerts May Not Do Enough

But alerts aren’t always sufficient, which is why a standard set by NHTSA may be needed. WSB-TV Atlanta published an investigation into vehicles with and without alert systems. In testing more than a dozen popular cars to see what happens when you leave them running and walk away with the key fob, the investigation team noted most of the cars had a dashboard display that notes that the key fob has left the vehicle (fairly useless). Some emit a low interior sound, similar to the one that reminds drivers to fasten their seat belts. But that system, too, is easy to miss. WSB noted the loudest warning came from General Motors’ Chevy Impala, which utilized the car horn for its warning.

General Motors earlier this year recalled older models of the Chevy Volt specifically to add software that would fix the issue of the extended range car’s engine coming on if the driver has left the car on and the battery engaged when parked. Newer Volts have software that will shut the car off after a few minutes if the key fob leaves the vehicle.

Whether you have a car with or without the audible alert, it would not hurt to perhaps put a sign on the wall of your garage that faces you as you park that says, “Is Engine Off?” The issue also spotlights the need for everyone to have carbon monoxide detectors, as well as smoke detectors, in their homes.

Our Best Advice When Dealing with Your Push Start Button 

The best thing you can do to prevent being in such a dangerous situation is taking precaution. When you park the car, shut it off. Check the back seat for passengers. And lock the door. If it’s hard to remember, keep a sticky note on your dash or on your door before you exit the garage.

Push-Button Starters Offer Convenience And Other Benefits, But Are They Also Dangerous? Lawsuits May Prove That They Are.

David Kiley is Editor-In-Chief of New Roads Media, a digital content firm. He is also President emeritus of the... More about David Kiley