IN YOUR CORNER
No swift fix for this old bag
Read the car owner’s manual for details on airbag protection
“If I had known that the airbags wouldn’t deploy if the car rolled, I would most definitely not have purchased this car.”
So said a Somerset West woman I’ll call Natalie, in an e-mail to Suzuki South Africa in January.
She and her family are outraged that the Japanese car maker is taking no responsibility for the fact that she sustained serious injuries when her 2016 model Suzuki Swift lost control on the gravel road she was travelling on last September, veered off the road and rolled.Natalie, then 27, had swerved to avoid hitting a dog and the car was subsequently written off by her insurer.
In a complaint Natalie filed with the Motor Industry Ombudsman of SA, she wrote: “According to Suzuki, even if the car rolled, the airbags shouldn’t/wouldn’t have deployed. This is not mentioned when the car is purchased.”
I’ve bought several cars with airbag protection, and no salesman has ever given me a run-down on what the airbags in question will and won’t do for me in various accident scenarios.
That information is contained in the car owner’s manual, seldom read by new car owners in detail.It appears Natalie and her family are not alone in expecting frontal airbags to protect them in any kind of accident, so perhaps there is some merit in salesmen being trained to give prospective buyers a quick run-down on a car’s safety features.
As Natalie now knows, the Swift manual states: “Front air bags are not designed to inflate in rear impacts, side impacts, rollovers, or in minor frontal collisions, since they would offer no protection in those types of accidents.”In fact, says Nico Vermeulen, director of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of SA (Naamsa), “if airbags deploy outside the pre-designed conditions they are potentially dangerous and can lead to injuries”.
“Frontal airbags should only deploy in a frontal collision above certain collision speeds and within collision angles,” he said.
Johan van Vreden, the Motor Industry Ombud, concurred. “As with any product or appliance, a manufacturer can only do so much to ensure the safety of the user.
“Motor vehicle owner’s manuals include safety precautions and explanations of the passive and active safety devices fitted.”Side and curtain airbags deploy during side impacts and rollovers, being designed and positioned to protect occupants in the type of accident which Natalie experienced. But her 1.2 Swift was not equipped with side or curtain airbags, and nor is any other car in that price bracket (below R200,000).
I sent photos of the battered hatchback to a top forensic accident investigator, who asked not to be named, along with all the documented information about the accident.“Looking at the vehicle’s damages at face value,” he said, “If I were asked to comment on the probability of the front airbag deploying, I would say certainly not – there is no damage to the front of the vehicle that would cause it to deploy.
“If it did, it would be of no use at all in a lateral crash/rollover.”
That’s more or less what Suzuki South Africa told Nadine and her father, who has publicly been lambasting the manufacturer for selling an “inferior, defective” product – the Swift – and not caring that it’s putting those who buy it in grave danger.
“The fact is that this inferior product … caused a big financial loss for my daughter – in excess of R150,000 without taking into consideration pain, suffering, psychological trauma,” he told the manufacturer.As part of its detailed response to Natalie, Suzuki SA stated that for the car’s front airbags to deploy, “the vehicle must be impacted either straight on, or within a 30-degree angle from either side of the centre line of the vehicle”.
Front airbags are not designed to deploy in rollovers, side or rear collisions, the manufacturer told her. They’ll only deploy when the car computes a front impact with a force equivalent to hitting an immovable object such as a reinforced concrete wall at 25km/h or a parked car at 47km/h.
Despite all the evidence, the family remains appalled that “none of the airbags deployed! Not even after the car rolled!” and convinced that Suzuki is responsible for Natalie’s injuries and financial loss.
Natalie says the car went head-first through a wire-and-poles security fence before rolling, “which should simulate the same as a head-on collision”.But Suzuki points out that she made no mention of a fence in her vehicle inspection form or incident report, which she filled out shortly after the accident.
“If indeed there was a fence, it still has no bearing on this case, because the car’s front sensors were not damaged,” says Suzuki spokesman Megan MacDonald.
When I pointed that out to Natalie her response was: “It is so sad to know that you believe Suzuki that the airbags should not have deployed.
“If you had investigated the photos I sent, you would have realised that there is not one part that was not hit or dented in the accident.
“I didn’t expect that you would be on my side.”As journalists we’re expected to be on the side of truth, and to use available evidence and the input of experts – including independent ones – to get to the truth.
And the truth is that when it comes to airbags, only side and curtain airbags will offer you any protection in a roll-over accident and frontal airbags will only deploy if you smash head-on into an object in front of you, with the required amount of force.
“We feel really badly about Natalie’s accident, but we honestly don’t know of another way to communicate the (airbags) message to them.
“The belief that front airbags should deploy in a rollover is an extremely common misperception, and I am sure that every manufacturer in the country has these complaints,” MacDonald said.#SHELFIE
A JUICY STORY: Fans of Clover Life 60% Orange Nectar have been taking to social media to complain about the product looking and tasting insipid. Their taste buds are right; the product is not the same as it was, but they’ll be happy to know that Clover is reverting to the old formulation, which should be in stores from next month. A change in formulation with no on-pack communication about it is seldom good news for consumers.
• Contact Wendy Knowler at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @wendyknowler