By Robert McCoppin and Susan BergerContact Reporter Chicago Tribune

For decades, American drivers generally had to do two things to get their car keys out of the ignition when they left a vehicle: Put it in park and turn off the engine.

But new keyless ignitions have disrupted that habit. Now, drivers can walk away with their key fobs and leave their motors running. Today’s quieter engines also enhance the risk of motorists leaving their cars running without realizing it — a scenario that can be deadly if a car is inside a garage or other enclosed space.

That appeared to be what happened to Pasquale and Rina Fontanini, who were found dead in their Highland Park residence Monday. Authorities and the couple’s son, a lieutenant in the local fire department, said lethal levels of carbon monoxide accumulated in the home after the couple’s keyless 2013 Lincoln MKS was left running in the garage, possibly overnight.

The deaths are part of a small but alarming, and seemingly growing, phenomenon of people being killed or sickened by carbon monoxide from a keyless car accidentally left running. Safety advocates say the problem requires an immediate solution, but, facing opposition from the auto industry, federal regulators have been taking years to act.

Different safety groups have counted a half-dozen to a dozen deaths nationwide from carbon monoxide poisoning involving vehicles with keyless ignitions, not including the two in Highland Park this month.

In New York, a man died and a college professor suffered permanent brain damage in 2009 after their keyless car was left running, according to published reports. A young couple was reportedly killed the following year after a keyless auto poisoned them in a Florida town house.

Those are a small fraction of about 430 accidental carbon monoxide poisoning deaths nationwide in a typical year, according to federal statistics. But Sean Kane, founder of Safety Research & Strategies, a Massachusetts-based company that conducts research for public and private clients, said deaths involving keyless cars are likely undercounted, because no reporting is required specifically on such incidents. His firm, whose clients include lawyers who are suing automakers, has tallied 12 deaths related to poisoning from keyless cars.
Car models offering keyless start (chart)
Tribune Graphics

“Keyless ignition has upended the relationship between the driver and the car,” Kane said. “It’s created a scenario where you can easily leave a vehicle running and not know it.”

In the Fontaninis’ case, their son, Cesare, said he discovered his parents unconscious when he arrived at their home early that morning, as he often did when he completed his overnight shifts at the fire station.

Typically, he would chat with his parents about family news over an espresso before his mother left for work at The Lake Forest Shop, a women’s clothing store, and his dad went to his part-time landscaping job.

But Monday morning, Fontanini said he found the garage door open and his 79-year-old father unresponsive on the floor. Fontanini began CPR and called for an ambulance, then discovered his 75-year-old mother, also unconscious, upstairs.

Fontanini said that he believes his father was awoken by a carbon monoxide detector, which he took downstairs with him as he went to check the house. It appears that he discovered the car running in the garage and opened the garage door to air out the space but was overcome by the toxic fumes.
Carbon monoxide: Staying safe from the silent killer
Carbon monoxide: Staying safe from the silent killer

“My dad made a valiant attempt … but it was too late,” Fontanini said.

Safety advocates say that while drivers must be responsible for turning off their vehicles, the penalty for forgetting should not be death. Kane’s group wants keyless vehicles to be required to have automatic shut-offs after a period of time if their engines are left running.

Instead, the auto industry and federal regulators have proposed that vehicles have alarms that sound when drivers leave them running or in gear, as some keyless cars already have in place. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed such changes in 2011, but more than three years later has yet to take final action.

Safety is the top priority for the auto industry, said Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 top automakers.

Keyless ignitions generally follow recommendations from SAE International (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers), which include standardized indicators that the vehicle is running or in gear, Newton said.

Public safety officials said they are increasingly finding cars left running unattended in public settings and attribute the phenomenon to keyless ignitions and to remote starters that can sometimes be triggered accidentally.

Highland Park police officials said the department has frequently discovered empty cars with keyless ignitions running in Ravinia Festival parking lots during concerts, for example.

Keyless starters were initially the domain of luxury cars in the 1990s, but are now offered by most automakers, said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for AutoTrader. Such “smart keys” come with fobs that drivers can keep in their pockets or purses, allowing them to unlock their car doors with a touch of the handle and then start their cars with a dashboard button. She believes traditional keys will become obsolete.

“This is definitely the wave of the future,” she said. “Everything is going electronic.”

Krebs has first-hand experience with leaving a keyless car running accidentally. She said that she once left a test car outside a restaurant, only to discover after her meal that she’d left the vehicle running.

AAA has also predicted that traditional car keys will be replaced by smart keys and eventually smartphones, noting that some makers already offer mobile apps to monitor and control car functions.

Drivers may take awhile to get used to a smart key, but once they try it, they like it, said Mark Scarpelli, owner of Raymond Chevrolet and Raymond Kia in Antioch.

He said that sales members try to educate owners on the new features, which have redundancies like a three-button process to start a vehicle remotely. Vehicles also typically sound alarms if a driver unbuckles the seat belt or opens the door with the car running, or if they leave the key fob in the car.

“It’s like a new phone. There’s always a learning curve,” he said.

The systems are touted as convenient, because drivers don’t need to fish out a key or remote to open the door, and a theft deterrent, because such cars are harder to hot-wire. Keyless ignitions can also be made with alarms to audibly alert drivers when they’ve left their engines running, and can benefit people with disabilities or arthritis.

As the Fontaninis’ children cope with their loss, Cesare Fontanini said he was comforted in his belief that “they are in heaven together.”

He called his parents “beautiful people” who had emigrated from Italy and lived the American Dream. They had planned to take a monthlong trip to Europe in July, including visits to relatives in Italy. Their son said he found on his parents’ dining room table gifts that they had purchased for his twins’ upcoming birthday.

Ellen Stirling, owner of The Lake Forest Shop, called Rina Fontanini “a role model and inspiration. She never stopped working and always had a smile on her face.”

Cesare Fontanini said he was still shaken by the circumstances of his parents’ deaths.

“The car killed my parents,” he said. “To end up the way they did is shocking.”

Robert McCoppin is a Tribune reporter. Susan Berger is a freelance reporter.

We would like to thank the Chicago Tribune for this material. Visit the Chicago Tribune at for this complete article and other news.