ABC News Investigation: The Potential Risk of Keyless Ignitions

PHOTO: Cesare Fontanini, 50, of Highland Park, Illinois, found both his parents, Rina, 76, and Pasquale, 79, dead after they accidentally left their car running in their attached garage. PlayCourtesy Fontanini Family
WATCH The Risks of Leaving Your Keyless Ignition Car Running

A keyless ignition is that push button in your car that starts the engine instead of turning a key. It’s a feature that’s standard equipment on many new vehicles, but consumer safety advocates say keyless ignitions could pose a danger if you walk away with the fob and forget to turn off the car.

Noah Kushlefsky is an attorney who has represented several families whose loved ones have died from carbon monoxide poisoning after the key fob was removed and the car was left running. "When you're disassociated from the car by removal of the mechanical key, it's an easy step to forget" Kushlefsky said. "It's a senseless situation that should never occur and should never have occurred."

Most keyless ignitions allow drivers to walk away from their car with their key fob and leave the motor running. There are an estimated 5 million keyless cars like this on the road, according to a lawsuit against 10 automakers filed in August in a Los Angeles, California Federal Court, which critics say could put your family at risk.

For Cesare Fontanini, 50, of Highland Park, Illinois, that’s exactly what happened to his family. Often after his shift as a Lieutenant for the Highland Park Fire Department, Fontanini would stop by his parents’ house to have an espresso. In June 2015, that ritual changed forever.

Fontanini found both his parents, Rina, 76, and Pasquale, 79, dead after they accidentally left their car running in their attached garage.

“It’s etched in your brain for the rest of your life. And a moment like that, that is a game-changer in life,” Fontanini told ABC News’ Alex Perez.

The 2013 Lincoln MKS that Fontanini’s parents drove had a push button, or keyless ignition. That model of car does make an audible warning, but investigators say that his mother Rina put the key fob in her purse, despite that. Officials say the carbon monoxide from the engine built up in the garage and seeped its way into the house, eventually killing them both.

“I was unaware that there was a problem with keyless ignitions until this happened to my parents,” Fontanini said.

To find out how quickly the carbon monoxide fumes in a running car could turn deadly, ABC News conducted a demonstration with Tom Feiereisen, a forensic engineer specializing in carbon monoxide, to monitor carbon monoxide levels from the exhaust of a car left running in a garage. The Bay Shore Fire Department in Long Island, New York, was there to help keep us safe.

An ABC News producer drove a 2015 Chrysler 300 – one of many vehicles on the market with keyless ignitions – into the garage and took the key fob with him as he exited the still-running vehicle. Watch the demonstration in the video above.

The producer says he heard no alarm outside the car and as the demonstration continued, there was no automatic shut off.

The freestanding garage used in this demonstration was more leaky than an attached garage. Therefore, ABC News covered the exterior vents to mimic an attached garage. Then, every 30 minutes, Feiereisen checked the levels of carbon monoxide in the garage with a gas analyzer. After about two and half hours, the levels of carbon monoxide present inside the garage had increasingly begun to build.

“We're currently at 890 parts per million, and that could be potentially lethal given a long enough exposure,” Feiereisen said.

And about four and a half hours into the demonstration, the levels of carbon monoxide inside the garage became highly lethal.

“If you were to go inside this garage right now and close the door, you would feel the effects immediately, and you would probably lose consciousness within five to ten minutes and death would follow shortly thereafter,” Feiereisen said.

“If this was an attached garage you would get carbon monoxide leaking into the house almost certainly get lethal levels within the house,” Feiereisen added.

At this point, Chief John Ippolito Jr. of the Bay Shore Fire Department became worried that the demonstration could become too dangerous if continued, so the test was stopped. Firefighters with masks and safety gear approached the garage.

The firefighters opened the garage door. They then used several ventilation fans to air out the garage and make it safe again.

Most cars with keyless ignition do have some kind of visual or audible alert when the car is left running with the key fob not in the car. Some cars even have an automatic shut off. The 2015 Chrysler 300 used in this demonstration makes a beeping sound inside the car, but critics say that’s not much use if no one is in the car.

But Chrysler told ABC News their cars “meet or exceed all applicable federal safety standards.”

Critics say even alerts which sound outside of a running car aren’t enough and are, instead, calling for a standard automatic shut off, which is only on a few models of vehicles.

“If you know it's a safety risk and you have an easy way to fix the problem, then why wouldn't you do it on all cars? Why are there cars still being purchased by the public that have this risk?” Ted McNabola, a lawyer who represents the Fontanini family in a lawsuit against Ford, maker of the parents’ car, said.

However, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents twelve automakers, says they’re even opposed to NHTSA's proposed rule mandating a brief, piercing alarm.

“No rationale has been offered for concluding that the proposed audible alarms would actually reduce the identified risks of carbon monoxide poisoning or rollaway,” the organization stated in 2012.

Today, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers tells ABC News that their position has not changed and that auto safety is their top priority. They say their working to further develop best practices.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a rule almost four years ago that would require a brief, but piercing alarm, but not an automatic shut off if someone were to leave a car running and take the key fob.

NHTSA officials say they are reviewing public comments and say they plan to issue a final rule in February.

Ford, the the maker of the Fontanini's Lincoln MKS, told ABC News in a statement, “Ford takes the safety of our customers very seriously; the keyless ignition system has proven to be a safe and reliable innovative feature that has been well-received by customers. Ford vehicles equipped with keyless ignition alert drivers when the driver’s door is opened and the vehicle’s engine is running.”

The company add that many of its current models with keyless ignitions do have an automatic shutoff feature, which turns off the vehicle after 30 minutes of inactivity

Fontanini hopes his efforts will help educate others about the risks.

“It’s just a matter of educating anybody who does buy any keyless ignition cars, so this doesn’t happen,” Fontanini said. “This was a senseless accident, it could have been prevented. Hopefully from here on forward, it is prevented for future consumers buying cars.”

ABC News’ Thomas White, Hannah Yoo, Brian Broder and Angel Feliciano contributed to this report.