Ignore that airbag alert at your own risk

What you need to know:

A reader recently asked a question that I think warrants a lengthy explanation that would also be of use to other motorists. After noticing his airbag warning light on the dashboard, he took the car to his mechanic whose advice was to remove the airbags. I explain why this is a bad idea.

Your mechanic asking you to remove airbags from your car because of a warning light is akin to your watchman asking you to pull down your fence and front gate because the hedge is overgrown or the hinges are squeaky; creation of a much worse situation in the quest to solve a virtual non-issue.

That is the devil of disinformation trying to lead you down the garden path that ends in blood and tears. Do not remove the airbags from your car.

Flawed airbags

There was the scandal involving Takata airbags that were installed in millions of cars, but that is too long a saga for me to fully explain. But the gist of it is this; a large batch of Takata airbags were flawed in that they used the wrong chemical (an ammonium nitrate derivative) as a propellant, a chemical which most likely will go off with more force than is required, thus destroying the metal cartridge that acts as a housing for the same propellant and turning the housing into shrapnel.

In essence, your potential lifesaver transforms into a Mills Bomb and there is a high probability of you being fragged in your own car, even in a low speed accident. How low? One expectant woman’s neck was sliced by metal fragments and died after the airbags deployed in a 30km/hr crash and hurled the projectiles right at her face with explosive force. Thirty kilometres per hour.

That is not all. The propellant used did not contain a drying agent. So, sometimes not even a crash was necessary to set off the killer pillows. A little wetness or high temperature, or even age, would trigger, then boom. It is the trenches for you.

Older cars with faulty Takata airbags were literally time bombs without the clock-faced readout. You would be driving along and a little unheard voice would go “The Apocalypse will be any minute now, sir”. You would never hear that voice, but you will hear the airbags go off at the wrong moment, and completely unprovoked (at least to you). That would probably be the last thing you hear as well.

Recall

To say that this caused a stink after 23 deaths and 300 injuries (and counting) would be to understate things. Nineteen different car manufactures were mired in this goo and the eventual tally of vehicles listed for recall to stop them from being the scenes of second degree murder came to a record 42 million (and counting); the biggest automotive recall in the history of mankind.

A total of 42 million is a lot of cars, and they are spread as far afield as New Zealand though patient zero (and rabid snitching by Takata execs) helped investigators trace the problem to a factory in Mexico. I will not tell you whether or not your car is among the affected, but who knows? Like I said, 42 million is a lot of cars.

I did not think there were 42 million cars on Earth, let alone carrying live grenades within their steering columns. The NHTSA and various other bodies have online VIN checkers from which you can confirm the worst. I would be typing furiously into the Google’s search bar if I were you right now.

Not an option

If the airbags do not deploy by themselves, driving around with the warning light unresolved amounts to the same thing as having no airbags; they will not deploy in the event of an accident. You are on your own. You need to fix that light, and pronto.

Reinstalling the airbags is not really an option; this is a highly sensitive and carefully calibrated safety system that mere garages are incapable of fully restoring with any amount of accuracy or guarantee. That is why cars are written off once the airbags deploy, even with minimal structural and mechanical damage.

Only franchised and authorised dealerships have the permission of manufacturers to reinstall airbags (more so following the Takata recall) and even then, not all of them qualify.

There is another choice, the rightful and most sensible route to take, which is also the most expensive but guarantees a happy ending; replace the vehicle.

It may sound a bit extreme, selling a vehicle because of a mere dashboard warning light, but this is one warning light that carries a lot of weight behind it (pun intended). Also, you may not have to sell your car.

Troubleshoot

We are done with the bad part; let me now give you some hope. Before you sell the car, use a diagnostic tool to troubleshoot what exactly the warning light is all about, an OBD II scanner should easily pull a code from the ECU that you can decipher and tell what is causing the light to come on.

Sure, the problem is with the SRS (supplemental restraint system) but sometimes the cause is something as simplistic as debris in the seat belt latching mechanism (imagine buying a whole new car because the seat belts in the previous one were dirty, ha!), or it could be a worn out clock spring in the steering mechanism that hinders the ECU from signalling the airbags to report for duty in the event of a crash, a common occurrence in older vehicles.

Sometimes, if the light comes on after driving on a rough road, it could be a sensor that was jarred out of position. In this case, get a qualified mechanic to work on it. As I said, the SRS, of which the airbags are a part, is very sensitive. The airbags could go off if the sensor is fiddled with.

We live in finger-pointing and responsibility-dodging times, so blame, blame, blame. Just do not blame anyone if you choose to keep driving what we have established is now an unsafe vehicle and something goes horribly wrong.

Road safety

1. When a car hits something, it starts to lose speed.

2. An accelerometer (electronic chip that measures acceleration or force) detects the change of speed.

3. If the deceleration is great enough, the accelerometer triggers the airbag circuit.

4. The airbag circuit passes an electric current through a heating element.

5. The heating element ignites a chemical explosive. Older airbags used sodium azide as their explosive; newer ones use different chemicals.

6. As the explosive burns, it generates a massive amount of harmless gas that floods into a nylon bag packed behind the steering wheel.

7. As the bag expands, it blows the plastic cover off the steering wheel and inflates in front of the driver.

8. The driver pushes against the bag. This makes the bag deflate as the gas it contains escapes through small holes around its edges.

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