Ticking Time Bomb in Your Dashboard
Air bags driver and front seat passenger air bags
have been mandatory in cars since the mid 1990s. That means there
are now millions of older cars on the road with air bags. These
air bags are ticking time bombs, financially speaking (and otherwise;
more on that below) because of the ever-less-favorable ratio
between the value of the car itself and the cost to repair the car
if the air bags go off.
Heres what I mean:
Lets say you own a 2000 model Toyota Corolla. Its still
running great and you hope to be able to drive it for at least another
five years a reasonable expectation given the durability
of newer cars. At twelve years old, it still has a lot of useful
life left. And because its paid-off, you have very low fixed
But, heres the catch.
Your 2000 Corolla is only worth about $3,500 or so, retail. But
the cost to replace the air bags, if they go off in an accident,
will be in the neighborhood of $1,500-$2,000. Which means, even
before you take fixing the actual car into account, the projected
repair costs have already come dangerously close to the 50
percent of retail value threshold at which point, most
insurance companies will refuse to fix the car. Instead, it will
be totaled and you will be given a check for the retail
value usually, a lowball number. Rarely will you receive
a check adequate to buy an equivalent vehicle.
The number of cars (and car owners) facing this Hobsons Choice
continues to grow each year, as the fleet ages and the book
value of older cars drops. Its a pretty good bet that
if your vehicle is worth less than $6,000 it will be totaled by
your insurance company if the bags ever deploy. Under $5,000 and
its a certainty. (A 2002 NHTSA study found that
all vehicles more than seven years old are scrapped if they are
involved in a crash in which their airbag deploys.)
Current year cars typically have at least four and in many cases
as many as six or even eight air bags. These multi-bag new cars
will reach the Event Horizon much earlier since the cost of replacing
three or four (or more) air bags will be even higher than the $1,500-$2,000
figure for dealing with just the driver and front seat passenger
bags in older cars.
The tragedy is that many of these cars are otherwise repairable.
Air bags dont go off in fender-benders, but its not
necessary to have a catastrophic wreck for them to deploy, either.
The threshold is about 20-25 MPH, which isnt insignificant
but also not enough (in many cases) to cause major structural damage
to the car the kind of damage that in the past would have
resulted (reasonably) in a decision to throw the car away. But today,
it is routine to find otherwise repairable cars some that
can still even be driven consigned to the junkyard because
of the cost of replacing the air bags. And legally, the bags must
be replaced. Even if you fix the folded fenders and the car is otherwise
fine to drive, the law requires all factory-fitted (and government
mandated) safety equipment to be intact and functional.
You wont be able to pass state safety inspection
and get/renew your government-mandated vehicle registration until
the bags are replaced.
the rest of the article
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columnist and author of Automotive
Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his
© 2012 Eric Peters
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