Safety device or lethal weapon?

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 South African 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.

Defect concealed

Made by Japanese parts company Takata, the airbags were installed in cars between 2002 to 2015. To date, 23 people have been killed by them around the world, and about 300 injured.

In 2017, the company pleaded guilty to fraud in a US court and agreed to pay more than $1 billion in penalties for concealing the defect.

Airbags are obviously designed to protect drivers and passengers in case of an accident, but 23 people have been killed by the defective airbags in the Takata scandal.

In South Africa, the recall applies to hundreds of thousands of cars across seven manufacturers – BMW, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota – from the 2000 Nissan X-Trail to the 2014 Honda Accord.

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There have been no cases in South Africa yet, and that may be part of the reason the response rate here has been pretty dismal: of the 730 000 affected Toyotas in South Africa, only 44% have had the airbags replaced.

That means that more than 400 000 Toyotas are on our roads with airbags, which, if they fire during an accident, are very likely to kill rather than save the driver.

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 life-saving device.

Environmental moisture, high temperatures and airbag age combine to cause the problem.

And that’s despite a massive campaign by Toyota. They’ve even sent people out to fuel stations on major routes during peak season.

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And here’s the truly astonishing part. Toyota told me this month that when their call centre people contact the affected owners about the free recall, 30% of them say, “No thanks, I’m fine with the airbags”.

About one in three! That’s next-level “it won’t happen to me” denialism, if you ask me.

And despite Honda South Africa’s best efforts, only 48% of its 145 000 affected models, made between 2001 and 2014, have had their defective airbags replaced, leaving about 70 000 cars a potential deathtrap.

Mazda’s response rate has been even lower. Less than 10% a year ago. “We firmly believe that the seriousness of this recall is not completely understood and appreciated by the South African motorist,” the manufacturer told me.

Increasing risk

Here’s the thing… the risk is increasing all the time – the older the airbag, the higher the risk. Heat and humidity also increase the risk. It’s a miracle that there hasn’t been a case in SA yet.

Last August, 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”.

Sad to say, it’s going to take an incident like that to end the apathy about this issue in this country.