Ignore that airbag alert at your own risk

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Hello JM,
I drove my Mark X on a rough road over the weekend and now I have an airbag light on my dashboard. My mechanic told me to remove all the airbags or be the unfortunate driver whose airbag deploys while driving leading to an accident.

Just the thought of such an incident has sent shivers down my spine and I cannot touch that car even with a 10-foot pole.

Reading some content online has confirmed that millions of Japanese cars have been shipped with faulty airbags and no significant recall has been made.

The insurance company told me to call them when the “airbags deploy, that’s assuming they don’t come for my funeral”. I’m out of options and have no daily runner for now. What should I do and whom should I blame (not sold by Toyota Kenya — it’s a grey import)? M N

Hello M N,
You bring to the fore a lot of issues, first being the ignorance of most of us on matters concerning road safety.

This is especially painful given that I have just returned from Baltimore, where I was taking a leadership course on global road safety under the aegis of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and this is the kind of thing they warned we might face in our new roles. Adult education is real. I went back to school.

Your mechanic is what my tutors in Baltimore call “forces working against reduction of road traffic injuries”. Let me explain:

You want airbags in your car. You really do; all the time. If, God forbid, you have an accident then you will need airbags in your car.

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. There is only one response to that: “Are you serious right now?”

That is the devil of disinformation trying to lead you down the garden path that terminates 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 you be fragged in your own car, even in a low speed accident. How low? One expectant woman had metal fragments slice into her neck and end her life after the airbags deployed in a 30km/h crash and hurled the projectiles right at her face with explosive force. Thirty kilometres per hour.
That’s 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 suffice, then boom! It’s the trenches for you, son. 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’d 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 didn’t 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 …

That aside, let’s move on. Your insurance asked you to notify them once the airbags deploy because that is one of the first parameters they pick up on to determine whether or not to write off a car. You will discover why that is so in a bit …

NOT AN OPTION

Yours is quite the quandary, sir. The decision is hard: drive the car as is and risk the airbag exploding in your face unprovoked leading to a chain of unfortunate events that could be potentially fatal or remove the airbags and rue the day you chose that option when a mere 45km/h head-on collision claims your life or leaves you severely maimed when you are impaled by your deformed vehicle.

If the airbags don’t 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’s 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.

Trade it in or sell it and buy another Mark X, whatever; but get rid of the faulty vehicle with the warning light.

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. In your case, since the light came on after driving on a rough road, it could be a sensor that was jarred out of position in which case get somebody a bit more confidence-inspiring than your current doomsayer 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 kienyeji-style.

As for who you should blame … well, blame everyone. Blame the fellow who came up with a liberalised economy that allows our country to serve as a dumping ground for vehicles the Japanese are tired of.

Blame the bean-counting economist who thought cheaper sensors that get triggered or interfered with when a vehicle goes over a rough road was a good idea to fit in a Mark X.

Blame your boss for not paying you enough to enable you afford a brand-new car with working airbags. Blame your mechanic for giving you advice one step removed from actual suicide. Blame the roads board/KeNHA/Kura and/or the Ministry of Public Works for not carpeting the rough road that did you and your airbag sensors in.

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

One thing I learnt in Baltimore is reduction of road traffic injuries and deaths is a complex and involving process and we are all part of it, even those of us who don’t drive. We are all to blame at the end of the day.

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Trouble with your hybrid? Here’s how you can get the full electric experience

Kindly recommend somewhere I can have a diagnosis done for my Lexus RX 450h. I seem to be on engine power full time rather than the battery. Jean

Does the vehicle report an error in the drive train or is it just your belief that something needs diagnosing?

Most of these hybrids switch between fossil power and electricity according to need and demand, not randomly. I suspect your driving style and environment has not warranted a fully electric experience so far.

Usually, electric power is used exclusively in low-speed low-load situations with the petrol engine kicking in where urgency is sought. You may have a lot of urgency in your driving life, which is why internal combustion seems to get an incessant workout under your tenure.

Now that we have a warning light theme going on today, let’s sum it up this way: if there isn’t an alarming graphic glowing brightly on your chin or neck from the instrument cluster (or a message flashing on the infotainment screen) telling you that you have a blackout in your car, then the only problem is somewhere within the footwell, to the right, wearing a shoe. Take it easy and you will hum along quietly on pure electricity.

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Greetings Baraza,

I’m a caraholic and always enjoy reading your analyses on cars. I’ve always been in love with the Toyota Mark X. She is just but a fine beauty that receives a lot of criticism. Is it a car you can advise me to buy? Always a pleasure. Kharsh

Sure. But as Car Clinic today has taught us, just make sure the airbags work.

As for criticism … unless it is factual, which a quick trip to the Google can verify, it is best to ignore.

There is a lot of hot air being blown out there by the tragically unknowledgeable and this sometimes leads to people being misled. For example, being told to get rid of your airbags as a curative approach to a persistent dashboard warning light. Dangerous times we live in, I tell you. Knowledge is power and information is key.

That being said: the Mark X comes on a rear-drive platform, so it behoves you to be circumspect with the hot pedal if the ground underfoot is not sticky enough to hold torque being dumped suddenly courtesy of a sharply opened throttle. Go easy on the hot pedal. You will slide, otherwise.

Those pedal-stomping antics will also introduce thirst into the conversation and given that fuel is hovering at Sh130 per litre (as of the time of writing), this may not be a good thing for your pocket.

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SOURCE: nation.co.ke

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