Air-bag recall is a risk-management issue

Dear Car Talk:

My BMW 335i is equipped with the defective Takata air bags that are under recall. I was officially notified by BMW last October, but a date for repair has never been given, and the dealership maintains that it’s illegal to disable the bags, so they will not do it for me. Can you recommend a mechanic in the Denver metro area that will disable and discard the killer bags for me? The car is still too nice to just push off a cliff, and wearing a steel plate around my neck inhibits my driving. Please help! – Ali

RAY: You’ve just given me a great idea for a new product: Car Talk steel driving bibs!

This has become a risk-management problem, Ali. You won’t find a mechanic who will disable the air bag for you – the liability would be too great. If you were to die in a crash, he’d lose his garage, his house, his 35-foot bass-fishing boat and all his favorite lures. So that’s not happening.

Obviously, the best thing to do is to not drive the car. Or, if it’s just the passenger-side air bag, make sure you’re always driving (actually, don’t let anyone sit in the passenger seat). But for most people, not driving their car – or trading it in – is not a realistic option.

The second-best option would be to ask your dealer for a loaner car until yours can be fixed. Some manufacturers are providing loaner cars for their customers, so it’s worth asking about.

But here’s where the risk management begins. One of our customers has a 2010 Honda CR-V. The dealer offered her a loaner car while she waited for her car to be fixed. But when she went to get it, all they would pay for was the smallest subcompact car that Enterprise rented; they would not provide another CR-V or similarly sized vehicle.

So she had to weigh whether driving around in a shoebox was riskier than taking a chance that (A) she would crash her CR-V, (B) that the air bag would deploy in that crash, and (C) that the air bag would actually be defective rather than just be at risk of being defective.

She asked if she could upgrade the rental to something larger, and she could have, but it would have cost her $25 a day ($750/mo) for who knows how many months? She ultimately decided to drive her own larger, heavier, safer car rather than the subcompact.

While the air bags under recall all could become defective (and kill you), not all of them are currently defective. So you also have to assess the risk based on your car.

Heat, humidity and time are said to be the biggest risk factors for these defective air bags. So if you live in southern Florida (somewhere where there’s heat and humidity year-round), and your car is a 2002 and has been through 15 years of that weather, you’re at the highest risk. If you have a newer car and you live in Denver, where you don’t have steady heat and humidity, your risk is lower. But no one, including me, can tell you exactly what your risk is.

So start with your dealer and see if you can negotiate a suitable loaner. If that doesn’t pan out, you’ll have to weigh all the risks and ask yourself, “Are you feeling lucky, punk?”

Warped brake discs are bad news

Dear Car Talk:

On my 2011 Toyota Camry SE with 95,000 miles, the steering wheel shakes and vibrates when I brake to slow down. The shaking and vibration are noticeable when I slow down from over 20 mph. When slowing down from a higher speed – like 60 or more – the shaking is worse, and I can see my hand and the steering wheel shaking. It’s been doing this for the past three years. I would like to know what is wrong before I take the car to the shop. – Patrick

RAY: Yeah, I don’t want you to rush into anything, Patrick. But I have a feeling that year four probably is going to be the year to get this looked at.

You have a classic case of warped brake rotors (also known as discs), Patrick. When you step on the brake pedal, a caliper on each wheel squeezes together two pads around a spinning brake disc – like the brakes on a bicycle tire. But after a while, the disc will warp. That can happen because it’s old and worn out, or because you’ve overheated it. I’m guessing your discs are just 30,000 miles overdue for being changed.

Once the disc is warped, when you step on the brake, the warped part of the disc pushes back against the squeezing brake pads. You’ll feel that in the brake pedal, and when it gets really bad, in the steering wheel, too.

And here’s the headline, Patrick: Your discs are warped really badly. That means you’re not getting the full power of your brakes, which is dangerous. I’m surprised you haven’t vibrated yourself into the back of a UPS truck yet.

You also could have more than one problem. You could have warped discs, which start the vibration, and a bad tie rod end, which magnifies it. And a bad tie rod end is something you urgently need to fix, before a wheel falls off.

So now that you know what it is, and that it’s potentially serious, please go get it fixed.

Since you obviously haven’t been to a mechanic in ages, find out what else the car needs, too. And after that, go see your doctor and get your past 10 annual physicals, too. Good luck, Patrick.

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