Like Us On Facebook!

The Latest Buzz

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Does the air bag in my old clunker have an expiration date?

Air bags are among your car's most durable components
By Peter Bohr, Westways Magazine (July/August 2010)

Airbag no more~

Air bags came into widespread use during the mid-1980s. Since then, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) figures they've saved some 26,000 lives. But with many air bag-equipped cars now reaching the ripe old age of 15 or even 20 years, will these complicated devices still work as expected if the need arises?

I asked several automakers and discovered that they're cagey about the answer. Volvo, renowned for its commitment to automotive safety, was the most forthright: "Air bags do not require replacement during the lifetime of the vehicle." Mind you, that's not a guarantee. Volvo, like most automakers, promises to replace a faulty air bag only as long as the car's bumper-to-bumper warranty is in force—five years with unlimited mileage for Volvo, but three years of 36,000 miles for many other automakers.

Neither NHTSA nor the automakers nor the air-bag manufacturers I contacted would provide any definitive test data regarding air bags in older vehicles. Still, there are good reasons to believe that air bags will probably outlast most other components on a car.

Air bags are tested under conditions that are "well beyond what you'd ever see in the field," said Doug Campbell, president of the Automotive Occupant Restraints Council, an industry trade group. Air-bag components are baked at just under the temperature of boiling water, chilled to -30°F, and subjected to vibration testing that puts forces against them ranging from 10 G to -10 G, according to Campbell.

During the past two decades, billions of air bags have been installed in cars. There have been high-profile recalls;  Honda recently recalled several hundred thousands of its vehicles, going back as far as the 2001 and 2002 model years, to fix defective air bags. But given the number of devices on the road, airbag problems have been relatively few. "In the crash testing we do, air bags are very reliable," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Honda's recall involved defective inflators—metal containers with an explosive charge that pops the air bag out of the steering wheel, dash, door, seat, or roof liner. But inflators are typically long-lived. IIHS crash-tested one of the first air bag-equipped cars, a rusty 1972 Chevy Impala. The driver and passenger air bags fired perfectly.

More likely to go hayware are electrics—various sensors and an electronic control unit that determine when to deploy the air bag. However, air-bag systems perform regular self-diagnostic checks, and a warning light comes on if there's a problem.

Of far greater concern than old but intact cars are ones that have been in collision forceful enough to deploy the air bag or cars that have been damaged by water. Once deployed, an air bag must be replaced. Unscrupulous body shops can put used—or even fake—air bags in cars they repair, said Steve Mazor, the Auto Club's Automotive Research Center manager. And water submersion can ruin the inflator's explosive charge.

Can you take any steps to ensure that your car's air bags are operable? The owner's manual may recommend a dealer inspection after 10 years. But given that the air-bag module—the bag itself and its inflator—is a self-contained, sealed unit, anything short of running your car into a wall won't be very meaningful, Campbell said.

Most important, monitor your car's self-check system. Switch on the ignition and note if the SRS (Supplemental Restraint System) indicator light comes on for a few seconds and then goes out. If the light doesn't come on, or if it stays on, call your dealer ASAP. Your life could depend upon it.

No comments:

Post a Comment