O'Connor: Car air bag recalled? Here's what to do

Brian J. O'Connor
Detroit News Finance Editor

Do you have one of the 34 million vehicles in the nation being recalled because of defective Takata air bags? If so, don't fret. Mrs. Funny Money and I have both had cars recalled several times and, in most cases, it's been a painless experience.

Mrs. Funny Money's Mariner was recalled for a steering problem that was fixed in a day with no fuss, for example. And, when we were first dating, her Renault Alliance was recalled, but that was by the local dealer who cited, "Excessive embarrassment at ever being involved with this piece of useless French monkey spit."

And then there was my 1993 Chrysler, which was recalled several years later for a very, very defective brake system, including a new $2,000 master cylinder. That, the dealer replaced for free, only to then hit me with a charge of more than $300 for parts and labor on items such as hoses, brake fluid and other related components he claimed weren't covered by the recall.

But I did take the pen I used to sign my check, so take that, pal!

In retrospect, I see that I was ripped off, a fact confirmed by the folks who enforce recalls at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Anything that's part of the repair should be included in the recall, according to a spokeswoman. But you can see how exactly what is and isn't covered could become a point of contention, notes Jonathan Linkov, deputy autos editor at Consumer Reports.

Part of replacing the air bag parts includes taking off the steering wheel, which involves a part called the clock spring. This part keeps all the electrical controls of the steering wheel, such as signals, light switches and radio controls, in contact with the car's electrical system. If it breaks during an air bag replacement, it might not be considered part of the recall.

"The customer may be liable for replacing it, because it has nothing to do with the Takata air bag failure," Linkov says.

In that case, Linkov says, your best bet is to take it up with the dealer service manager and, if you're not satisfied, contact the regional service manager who oversees dealer service operations for the manufacturer. NHTSA also suggests contacting the manufacturer and filing a complaint online at www.safercar.gov.

Other tips for surviving an auto recall include:

■While the dealers have to fix anything involved with repairing or replacing the defective part, they aren't required to fix anything that's not part of the recall. NHTSA notes that in the recall of some Jeeps that calls for installing a trailer hitch to protect against explosions from rear-end collisions, some of those vehicles have so much rust that the hitches can't be attached. In that case, repairing the corrosion is the owner's responsibility, not the dealer's.

■If service techs damage some other part of the car while repairing a recalled defect, NHTSA says the dealer needs to fix it for free. Shrugging while saying, "Oops!" won't cut it. If there's a problem, contact the service manager, regional service manager and file an online complaint with NHTSA.

■When you drop off your car for repair, stop and read the authorization forms, especially if you are using an after-hours dropbox. Most authorizations allow the service department to fix what they find, says Linkov, who recommends scratching out that language. Instead, set a dollar limit for any additional repairs, so that if the mechanics find anything more costly you'll be called for approval.

■Be patient. Takata has cranked up production to 1 million air bags a month, which means it could be nearly three years just to get all the replacement parts out to dealers if each car needed only one air bag, although in many models, it's more. You'll have to decide if you feel safe driving your car until the air bags are fixed.

The deaths and injuries from these defective air bags have happened in crashes when the bags deployed, not in accidental deployments. Since more than 70 percent of all accidents don't involve any more damage to the vehicle, air bags don't go off in every accident. Hitting deer on two separate occasions didn't trigger the air bag in my Buick Roadmaster Wagon, and getting sideswiped by a speeding pickup didn't set off the one in Mrs. Funny Money's Mercury, either.

■When you do call to make an appointment for your recall repair, ask the service techs if they've encountered any problems or extra needed repairs in replacing the bags, so you'll know what to expect. After all, with 34 million vehicles spread across 10 manufacturers, the dealer service folks are going to get lots and lots of practice making this fix.


(313) 222-2145

Twitter: @BrianOCTweet