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The Start of a Next Wave of Inadvertent Movement Injuries?

As I have noted on this site, inadvertent vehicle movement has been an issue since the invention of automatic transmissions. However, as with any technology, as it advances and new designs are introduced, sometimes there are so to speak “inadvertent” issues that arise, and can cause injury. Sometimes they are truly not foreseen and result from mistakes in design and not adequately testing the resulting system or conducting adequate DFMEA analysis, and sometimes they results from decisions that are money, not safety, driven. One such issue appears to be arising with certain “keyless ignition” systems, where design flaws can allow the vehicle to be turned off, exited, with the vehicle not in park and the “key” in the drivers hand (or pocket or purse). The vehicle can then roll away, either as it is being exited, or after the driver has left, injuring or killing occupants or those nearby. Keyless ignition systems in automobiles have been around since at least the mid-1990s, and were initially aftermarket systems that were tied into the starter to allow the vehicle to be remotely stated. I recall my law school roommate had one put in his car, and he used to wake up in the middle of the night concerned he had turned on his car, and run down to check it. [Needless to say, I ignored his suggestion to get this “cool” new thing put in my car.] Manufactures started to install electronic keys as standard equipment in the early 2000s, not like my roommate's after market for remote starting, but as a theft deterrent system. The key needed to be in a slot, where it was then locked with a solenoid, to transmit a code to allow the ignition to start.

The solenoid and slot though add expense to the vehicle, and the idea of keeping your key in your pocket, was a selling point, taking the idea back to the system my roommate had installed in the 90's of a remote starting key. Unfortunately several manufactures who chose to use such a cheaper system, failed to see they were fully safe when installed. As I sadly know, having represented a few of them, these poorly designed systems present risks to vehicle owners and those around vehicles. Current keyless systems fall into two rough categories. In one – which is property designed - the "key fob" or electronic key fits into a slot, and then a button is pushed to start the car. I have a 2006 BMW wagon that has this system. When the key is inserted in this "slot" a solenoid locks it in the slot while the car is running. The solenoid will not release the key fob until the vehicle is in park. As such the key is locked to the vehicle unless the vehicle is in "park". This system mimics what we are all used to, which is the KITSI (Key Ignition Transmission Shift Interlock) system, which insures the key can’t be pulled out unless the vehicle is in Park. In the second type of system, a “proximity key” which some manufactures are using is used, if the fob is within (or near) the vehicle, the vehicle can be started by pushing a button without a physical key being inserted into a slot. Instead, the key fob remotely transmits a code to the computer in the vehicle allowing the engine to be started by pushing a button. This is a system used by e.g. Nissan, and it is undoubtedly cheaper (and therefore more profitable) than conventional ignition systems using a key or the use of a solenoid to lock the smart key into the vehicle. The vehicle is then shut down by pushing the same button, but as the key is not locked in the ignition (as with a standard key) or held by a solenoid in a slot, there is no physical cue to shift to park when removing the key (which will be "locked" in the ignition when not in park in KITSI equipped vehicles). As a result a safety cue we all have likely personally experienced - we have turned off the vehicle to exit, think we shifted to Park, yet the key will not come out of the ignition - is missing. Having personally, turned off my vehicle, e.g. in the garage, and gone to remove the key and found it stuck, and realized I did not shift, I know how important this “cue” is to safety. Yet, certain manufactures have simply deleted this common and ubiquitous safety system. [Note that certain others manufactures, e.g. Toyota with the Prius, have successfully used proximity keys by having a transmission which self shifts to park when turned off.] Like Park to Reverse accidents, accidents caused by vehicles with no KITSI and a proximity key are often unreported and their cause unknown. The injuries are often unexplained. However, unfortunately I expect that we will be seeing more injuries and deaths from roll-away accidents as “proximity key” systems like Nissan’s with no KITSI become more common.


Scott P. Nealey is a San Francisco-based plaintiff's side trial attorney.  Scott is the founder and principal of Nealey Law.  He was the lead counsel in the Mraz v. DaimlerChrysler and Gulliot vs. Chrysler cases involving deaths caused by the "park-to-reverse" vehicle defect.

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