Don't be a crash dummy: your airbags could kill you

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Don't be a crash dummy: your airbags could kill you

The warning about potentially lethal airbags was sounded in 2015, yet hundreds of thousands of SA motorists have not acted

Consumer journalist


If you knew that the airbag in the car you’re driving could turn into a lethal weapon if it deployed in an accident, would you get it replaced?
Whether they know it or not, hundreds of thousands of SA motorists are risking death by airbag every time they get behind the wheel, especially in hot weather.
Vehicles made by 19 different manufacturers were recalled worldwide in 2015 to replace their potentially deadly airbags. Made by Japanese parts company Takata, the airbags were installed in cars between 2002 and 2015. To date, 23 people have been killed by them around the world, and about 300 injured. In SA the recall applies to hundreds of thousands of cars across seven manufacturers (BMW, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota), from the 2,000 Nissan X-Trail to the 2014 Honda Accord.
There have been no cases in SA yet, and that may be part of the reason the response rate here has been pretty dismal: of the 730,000 affected Toyotas in SA, only 36% have had the airbags replaced; in the case of Honda, not quite half (48%) of the owners of the affected 145,000 cars have had the potential lethal airbags removed, and only 13% of the 28,000 Honda owners have responded to the recall.
But the climate in parts of the country, coupled with the fact that most of the affected cars haven’t had their dodgy airbags replaced, makes the likelihood of death by airbag in SA relatively high. And increasing all the time – the older the airbag, the higher the risk. The affected manufacturers are all too well aware of this and are pulling out all the stops to get those dangerous airbags out of their cars.
Toyota has begun stationing people at key fuel stations to scan the licence discs of older Corollas and other affected models that pull up.
Last year, Takata pleaded guilty to fraud in a US court and agreed to pay more than $1bn in penalties for concealing the defect. If the airbag’s inflator housing ruptures in a crash, metal shards from the airbag can be sprayed throughout the passenger cabin – a potentially disastrous outcome from a supposedly lifesaving device.
Environmental moisture, high temperatures and airbag age combine to cause the problem. That’s why three months ago, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) strongly urged Florida car owners to check their car’s identification number (VIN) to see if their car is part of the recall, and if so, to take action. The combination of Florida’s hot, humid climate – very similar to Durban’s – and a low response rate makes for a lot of potential auto explosions.
“I cannot stress strongly enough the urgency of this recall. These airbags can be deadly,” said Heidi King, the NHTSA’s deputy administrator.
So, if you’re driving your fairly old car – one of those on the recall list – in a hot, humid climate such as Durban’s, there’s an especially high risk that if your airbag deploys, it will shoot sharp metal bits at you.
Just a month ago, 32-year-old Tiago Ferreira of Brazil was driving his 2007 Honda Civic to work when he rear-ended another car, causing his airbag to explode, sending a piece of shrapnel into his chest. He survived, but a witness described the wound as looking “like a military injury caused by a firearm projectile”.
Honda has since admitted that there have been 28 airbag ruptures across different models in Brazil, 11 of them resulting in injuries. Despite Honda SA’s best efforts, only 48% of its 145,000 affected models (Jazz, Accord, Ballade, Brio, Civic, CR-V, FR-V and Insight) made between 2001 and 2014, have had their defective airbags replaced, leaving almost 70,000 cars a potential death trap.
“As this is a safety-related item, Honda is concerned with the slow completion rate,” said Honda SA. “This is mainly attributed to the lack of customer contact details, especially for the older car park, and vehicles being out of warranty and service plans. As these vehicles are no longer in the Honda service network, we rely on the vehicle registration system to provide Honda with information,” the manufacturer said.
Recently, Honda SA and other affected manufacturers met national Department of Transport officials about raising awareness of the recall “and the lack of accurate information on the eNatis/RTMC system”.
“Honda SA and its dealer network remains committed to complete this recall as soon as possible, and welcomes any assistance from the media in raising the awareness of this recall especially towards the older model range.”
Predictably, the SA manufacturer with the most affected cars still on the road with those dangerous Takata airbags is Toyota: only 36,2% of its 730,000 affected vehicles have had the replacement done, leaving more than 262,000 Toyota owners at risk of death or injury should their airbags deploy in an accident.
“Calls to invite customers to bring in their vehicle for airbag replacements are often met with apathy, even when it’s explained that the repairs are free of charge,” said Toyota SA corporate PR manager Mzo Witbooi. “And some of the vehicles affected – especially models dating as far back as 2002, including Corolla, RunX and Auris – have had many owners, which makes them difficult to track down.”
The company has set up a dedicated call centre to contact affected customers, continues to attempt to contact non-responders through SMS and e-mail, and has developed mobile app technology (MyToyota) to allow people to scan their or their friends’ car licence discs to see if they are affected by the recall campaign. “We are also piloting a programme with a limited number of fuel stations, with Toyota representatives stationed at them in order to scan the licence discs of affected models,” Witbooi said.
Six months ago, a mere 9% of the owners of Mazda’s 28,000 recall-list cars had had the airbags replaced; today that’s up to 13%, after the manufacturer put out a press release, loaded information onto its website and placed adverts in several national and regional newspapers, urging owners of the affected Mazda models to take them to their nearest dealership for airbag replacement. The affected cars include Mazda2, Mazda6 and RX-8 vehicles produced between 2002 and 2014.
“We firmly believe that the seriousness of this recall is not completely understood and appreciated by the South African motorist; therefore we will continue our efforts to bring awareness through various channels available to us,” the manufacturer said.

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