Key Codes Leave Car Owners Locked Out

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, March 14, 2006

As more modern cars come equipped with anti-theft ignition keys, consumers are complaining about the increasing time and expense needed to replace missing keys.

After the master key to Jana Smith 's Toyota was lost under a foot of water as Hurricane Katrina flooded her home near New Orleans, a dealer told her she'd have to pay $2,200 for a new car computer, along with a new key, to get her 2002 Highlander back on the road. She declined.

"It was shocking," said Smith, who now lives in Dupont Circle. "It would have been shocking without Katrina."

She is not alone. AAA Mid-Atlantic got about 30,000 calls last year for help with locks; about a third of those were complete lockouts, said Mahlon Anderson , director of government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. In 1995, he said, the problem "pretty much" didn't exist because AAA cut keys on the spot. Nationwide, about 17 percent of calls to AAA are for vehicle lockouts, compared with about 1.4 percent in 1980.

"It's not only expensive, but people break down on nights and weekends and have to be towed," Anderson said. "We used to be able to get you into any car. We don't make that promise anymore."

Since the 1990s, carmakers have been incorporating increasingly sophisticated electronics into keys. Many of them have chips embedded in the keys that send out a code that must be read electronically before the car will start.

Auto manufacturers' sympathy is limited. New car owners are warned to keep a spare "master" key in a safe place in case they have a key catastrophe. They think the keys are adept at foiling car thieves, who stole 1.2 million vehicles in 2004 at a cost of $8.2 billion.

"It's an inconvenience," said Charles Territo , spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers . "But it pales in comparison to getting your car stolen." He added that for the majority of Americans, this will never be a problem if they purchase extra keys.

The Center for Auto Safety disagrees and petitioned the Federal Trade Commission yesterday, asking the agency to investigate auto companies for not releasing the key codes and for "charging exorbitant fees for nominal programming costs."

It wants the FTC to "move immediately" against companies that require new computers, and it suggests that an organization such as the National Insurance Crime Bureau , a nonprofit organization that combats theft and insurance fraud, run a database holding the key codes.

The Center for Auto Safety's executive director, Clarence Ditlow , also sent the FTC a survey of the costs of replacing keys in 50 makes and models in the Washington region. It found that the average local dealer price of a "smart" key was more than $150. The average cost of the rapidly disappearing mechanical key was $12.The highest was $335 for keys to a 2004 Lexus IS300.

William Harwood , who lives in Northwest Washington, forked over $445 to obtain a set of keys for his daughter, Laura, whose 2002 Audi A-4 keys were stolen. The car had to be towed to the dealer, and then it took a day to get the job done because the replacement had to be ordered from New Jersey.

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