“N.H.T.S.A.’s inaction clearly has produced fatal consequences,” the letter read. “This problem has not been solved by voluntary industry measures.”
The agency previously said that it relied on carmakers to install such safety features. Some have done so, but the Times investigation found that the measures varied from model to model and often failed to meet the guidelines of the standards group, the Society of Automotive Engineers.
Documents obtained by plaintiffs’ lawyers and safety advocates show that N.H.T.S.A.’s Office of Vehicle Safety Compliance began to test keyless-ignition vehicles in 2013 for compliance with regulations meant to guard against theft and rollaways.
The agency inquiry prompted Ford to conduct a voluntary recall of two keyless models that did not have an audible chime to warn the driver that the car was running, according to a letter sent to the agency by Ford.
Prompted by the finding, the office expanded its investigation and tested 34 keyless models from Ford and six other carmakers, finding no consistency in safety features across manufacturers.
It tested models for warnings to alert drivers that the engine was still running, with and without the presence of the key fob, which sends an electronic signal in place of a mechanical key. It found, for example, that the 2013 Lincoln MKX sounded the horn twice if the driver’s door opened while the car was running and the key fob was taken from the vehicle, according to handwritten test sheets from the Office of Vehicle Safety Compliance. But the Lincoln provided no audible alerts in the same situation if the key fob was left inside.
The agency later concluded the investigation without taking action. Sean Kane, an auto-safety advocate who has tracked the regulator’s investigations and policies for 25 years, said the failure to pursue the inquiry was a crucial missed opportunity to address hazards linked to keyless-ignition vehicles, including carbon-monoxide poisoning.
“The agency was willing to turn a blind eye to the bigger problem,” said Mr. Kane, who has advised plaintiffs’ lawyers in some of the carbon-monoxide cases. “We have a keyless-ignition system that operates in a manner that the consumer doesn’t understand, and that leads to deaths and injuries.”