By on June 23, 2015

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“I was pulling into a parking lot and I stopped so I could back into a spot. I had a friend of mine in the passenger seat. I backed into the spot, and was in a stopped position. I was in neutral (the vehicle is a manual 5 speed). My friend got out of the car, I had my door open as well. As my friend got out of the passenger side and was closing the door both airbags deployed.”

Not exactly what you’d expect, right?


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Over the weekend, I got a tip about a BMW X5 that experienced an unintended double airbag deployment. I reached out to the owner to get more details. It’s a 2002 X5 3.0i with the rare manual transmission. He bought it with 76,000 miles and a clean CarFax; in the past three years he’s taken it all the way to 155,000 on the odometer.

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He’s not the only person to experience this kind of issue: I was quickly able to find an instance of another no-impact deployment. Turns out, however, that it was a 2006 X5, which is the second generation of the model.

It’s easy to imagine any number of scenarios where a deployment like this could cause a major safety hazard; it’s a good thing it never happened when the X5 was testing at the Nurburgring, right? So far, BMW NA’s response has been to offer a free inspection. We’ll keep you posted on what happens next. In the meantime, if you have an X5, particularly one that is close to, or past, its tenth birthday, you might want to have the bags checked.

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87 Comments on “Why Did The Airbags In This BMW X5 Deploy Without Warning?...”


  • avatar
    RideHeight

    So THAT’S why there are so many BMWs out there!

    Those are seed pods!

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    As someone who makes non-nutritive food coatings I can confirm that the X5 is the modern incarnation of the Family Truckster.

  • avatar
    Quentin

    I’m not sure what the BMW dealer would tell you during the inspection other than the fact that there isn’t an airbag malfunction indicator light. If BMW knows there is some root cause or some early indication, that would be a different story. I’d expect they would have issued a recall if they knew what the issue was, though.

    Our 10 year old MINI has a recent recall out on the passenger sensor pad for the airbag deploy. When the power steering box caught fire back in the spring, I found that BMW was warrantying the issue for 13yrs and 150k miles. The used a flatbed to haul our MCS to Columbus, OH, repaired the vehicle, and used a flatbed to haul it back. I don’t remember if State Farm or MINI offered rental coverage while it was in the shop. I declined since we have 2 vehicles newer than the MINI as is. My basic point is that if BMW knows what the issue is that is causing this, they’d likely be pretty proactive about it.

    • 0 avatar
      sirwired

      Well, BMW can certainly ask the computer why it decided to deploy the airbags. Unlike engine management codes, airbag codes are persistent until cleared. (I know with my ’04 Passat, if you plug in the battery while the airbag is unplugged, later plugging in the airbag won’t clear the “airbag missing” error until manually reset with a scan tool; I imagine most cars work in a similar fashion.)

      • 0 avatar
        kvndoom

        Ugh you just rekindled memories of me paying $250 for a VAGCOM because I did just that on my 04 Golf.

        • 0 avatar

          The dealership wouldn’t do it?

          • 0 avatar
            kvndoom

            It would have cost more. A lot more… and probably led to arguing over warranty. I cut the wrong wire when I went under the seat to disable the seat belt chime (yellow and brown look eerily similar at dusk…). If you don’t know about the MK4 seat belt chime, it’s worth a read. easily in my top 5 all time car annoyances.

          • 0 avatar

            Volkswagen has been using a similar seatbelt chime since the debut of the Mk.4 vehicles. The one in the Mk.4s is slightly different from the one in the Mk.5, Mk.6 and Mk.7. My Mk.7 Golf (SportWagen) has the same chime, as did my Mk.5/Mk.6-based Jetta SportWagen. I don’t think it’s annoying, but the “La Cucaracha” three-tone chime that my 1997 Mk.3 Jetta has is annoying. I believe the Mk.2 vehicles had that chime as well. I’m almost certain that it could be disabled via VAGCOM on the Mk.4 and later, since the seatbelt chime requirement is a U.S. thing, and vehicles sold in other countries would need the chime (which is somewhere in the instrument cluster) for other audible warnings, just not for the lack of a buckled seatbelt.

            Also annoying is GM’s corporate “bong” chime, which is played through the head unit (as well as the turn-signal sound), and which is extremely loud. I had a 2015 Silverado rental, and on the quietest setting, my neighbor heard it from clear down the block (it’s a short block, but still…). I’m hoping GM will soon phase that chime out for something more palatable to the ears.

          • 0 avatar
            burgersandbeer

            For me, current Fords have the most annoying chime.

          • 0 avatar
            kvndoom

            Oh it’s not the sound of the tone… it’s the way it was programmed.

            The chime ran for 5 minutes before it would shut up. If you fastened your belt then unfastened it, then guess what? 5 more minutes…

            Now I drive with my seat belt 100% of the time, but sometimes people actually just sit in the car doing stuff! Hit up Google with “VW mkiv seat belt chime” and you’ll see the pain.

      • 0 avatar
        Quentin

        “In the meantime, if you have an X5, particularly one that is close to, or past, its tenth birthday, you might want to have the bags checked.”

        I was referring to getting your non-premature-inflated bags inspected. There won’t be any information unless you have an airbag light or the bags have already inflated. The inspection won’t do any good unless there is some known, visible root cause of the issue.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      When the power steering box caught fire? That’s a thing? Man, I’m glad our Mini Cooper only lasted a couple of years.

      • 0 avatar
        Quentin

        Unfortunately, yes. The steering pump is somewhat of a hybrid between an old hydraulic pump and an electric assist. Basically, as I understand, an electric motor drives the hydraulic pump. The hydraulic pump can get difficult to rotate or seize and the electric motor continues to try to drive it. It is an unfused circuit, so the motor continues pulling amps until you get an electrical fire. Through some fortunate timing (the fire didn’t start until I was in my garage) and quick action by me, I was able to put the fire out quickly without causing any additional damage other than the wire harness. Several people reported to losing their car on the side of the road or someone calling them and saying their car was burning in the parking lot or their driveway. I’d walked out for the second load of groceries while my wife was getting our daughter out of the car when we first saw the smoke.

        • 0 avatar
          wmba

          That fire is unbelievable and unprofessional on BMW’s part. Perhaps they have never heard of fuses of the time-delay variety, which can be designed to protect a load like this. If they haven’t, then they should have. Incompetence. Fire is not a minor thing to be glossed over by Herr Doktor Dipl Eng German types. It’s a major safety problem.

          • 0 avatar

            Right. And it’s actually rather *unfortunate* that it happened in the garage, because it could have burned your house down and put you, your wife and your daughter in serious danger. Unacceptable.

          • 0 avatar
            Quentin

            womb – Largely why I’m unlikely to see another BMW product in my driveway. I don’t think I really have any grounds to sue or anything like that. They fixed the car and it didn’t cost me anything. As far as what BMW does going forward, who knows. Having worked in product quality as an engineer, I’d have been at the dealership reviewing this and starting the paperwork for upper management to trigger a recall. I’m not BMW, though.

            Kyree – I said the timing was fortunate, not the location. Had it happened 5 minutes earlier, we’d have still been in the car and I likely wouldn’t have had access to a fire extinguisher. Had I not been going back out to get another load of groceries, I’d have likely not seen the smoke. The timing was fortunate in that I was able to react.

  • avatar
    EquipmentJunkie

    Something similar happened to me in my ’00 VW Golf TDI about three months after a prior accident that had deployed the airbags.

    The Golf went through a “crash sequence” over the course of four minutes. It began while I was driving on the highway and finally quit while I was stopped at an ATM. The sequence began with airbag light coming on, then the seat belt tighteners exploded, then the airbags exploded, and finally the hazards came on.

    Then it became a finger pointing game of “Who done it?” Was it a VW issue, the result of the prior accident, or the body shop who did the repair? This went round & round for weeks. The blame was finally assigned to the body shop who did the repair. The claim was that the body shop slit the wiring harness during the repair. (I disagree since the wiring harness was buried deep under the dash and all the the repairs were minor cosmetic work.)

    The end result for me was the car being “totaled”. Nobody wanted the liability. I started driving older, simpler vehicles.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      How much damage?

      If I was in an accident of any severity enough to pop bags, I’d press to have the car totaled, as nothing, IMHO, would make it right again. Especially if the accident was not my fault!

      • 0 avatar
        EquipmentJunkie

        The initial accident was low-speed, about 20 mph…I was surprised that the bags even were deployed. Afterwards the car was able to be driven and the hood functioned. There was no frame repair made. I have the paperwork on the repairs someplace. Airbags were far and away the most costly part of that first accident.

        There was no way that they would have totaled the car as a result from the first accident. My only resolution would have been to sell it myself and replace it with something else. Since that car seemed like an extension of my arm, I didn’t want to part with it. However, that choice was later made for me.

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      I bet the airbag module was never replaced. Insurance companies don’t like replacing them because they are pretty expensive. When these control units fire airbags, the current going through their circuits is pretty high to make sure the igniters fire. The you start seeing strange issues, although airbags spontaneously deploying are very rare. Push your insurance company to replace it anytime any igniter (airbag or seatbelt) is fired.

  • avatar
    energetik9

    “…if you have an X5, particularly one that is close to, or past, its tenth birthday, you might want to have the bags checked.”

    I don’t think this has anything to do with it. I just happened to own this same model X5. Drove it for years and anecdotally, owned it past its 10th birthday without issue. One of the most reliable cars I ever owned.

    I find it hard to believe that this is more than a rare malfunction. I think you could probably sub any manufacturer name here and the rate of occurance would be similar. Case in point, experience of EquipmentJunkie above and a random airbag deployment on a VW.

  • avatar

    Airbags are a subsystem of the car that relies on sensors.

    Why is it that cars don’t have front parking sensors connected to the airbags along with mechanical “crash sensors” so that the computer will detect an impending crash before the actual crash sensors are triggered?

    This would eliminate the airbags deploying due to objects small striking the car – and premature deployments.

    • 0 avatar
      Vega

      Various reasons:

      Ultrasonic parking sensors are not fast enough in crash situations. In addition, they are not reliable enough and can be influenced by dirt, ice&snow etc.

      Finally, airbag sensors have certain lower deceleration thresholds that keep them from deploying during smaller hits. Due to the comparatively low seat belt use these thresholds are lower in the US compared to Europe, however false firings are still rare enough to be negligible.

    • 0 avatar
      sirwired

      Airbags shouldn’t deploy “due to small objects striking the car” even with the current setup. The sensors are situated such that they aren’t vulnerable to, say, a shopping cart or bicycle.

      • 0 avatar

        Someone taking a brick and hitting a parked car (some models) can set off the sensor even when the car is off. Baseball bats work too.

        • 0 avatar
          energetik9

          That doesn’t make any sense to me. Are you sure this isn’t just urban legend? Never have I heard of an airbag deploying for those reasons.

        • 0 avatar
          sirwired

          Sounds like an Urban Legend, especially given how the airbags are powered off when the ignition is off. (That is the whole genesis of the ignition switch fiasco.)

        • 0 avatar
          Exfordtech

          There’s more to deploying an airbag than an impact from a baseball bat or brick. Most front airbags require the triggering of a primary crash sensor and a safing sensor in a prescribed sequence along with rapid vehicle deceleration.

        • 0 avatar
          See 7 up

          Ah, no.

          I’ve seen many frontal impacts that don’t result in airbag deployment. I’ve t-boned a car that pulled out in front of me in which the wheel left a lasting impact on my bumper. Her front suspension collapse. No airbag deployment. I estimate my impact speed at about 5-10 mph after slamming on my brakes and from about 45 mph.

          Airbag sensors are accelerometers. If you can produce the amount of g’s required by throwing a brick or swinging a bad, passing through the 5 mph bumper (a speed that is design not to deploy an airbag), I recommend you try out for professional baseball, or quit using steroids (or maybe continue and still take the baseball advice)

  • avatar
    Mr Imperial

    On the bright side, at least Takata didn’t manufacture these airbags….

    • 0 avatar
      Jason Lombard

      I just completed a recall for my e46 330 to replace recalled Takata airbags. BMW did use them, but I don’t think they used them on the X5. FWIW, my wife drive this exact vehicle for over 6 years (’02 X5 manual) and it was also the most reliable vehicle we’ve ever owned. In 100k miles, the only things to fail was a cracked cup holder and a window regulator.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    This kind of stuff happens on all kinds of models with more frequency than most would believe.

    • 0 avatar
      sirwired

      Agreed; this is where the statistical information that the NHTSA collects is (supposed to be) used. A couple anecdotes about a particular model are useless, but a trend is valuable data that can be used to initiate a recall.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      So when you’re out of warranty and this situation happens, does the manufacturer have to do anything about it?

      I’d think they would want to know for their own record keeping. I suspect we’ll see more and more of this as the oldest airbag equipped vehicles age out and turn 20-25 years old.

      • 0 avatar
        danio3834

        Let’s just say it can get sticky depending on root cause.

      • 0 avatar
        burgersandbeer

        I doubt they are legally obligated to do anything about it. For an extreme failure like that, I bet most would be accommodating to keep a story about the problem and lack of cooperation from spreading. A manufacturer where engineers have any influence would like to find out what caused it as well.

        Wheels I bought for my old 5 series were available because the seller’s 5 series burned up in an airport parking lot. The cause was something to do with the auxiliary fan. There was a recall campaign for this, though curiously before the car burned. The seller claimed BMW offered all kinds of discounts for a replacement, and also wanted the remains of the car.

        I think the trick is to involve the manufacturer early and not count on a franchised dealer to make things right.

  • avatar
    sirwired

    It ain’t the bags; if it were the bags, both would not have deployed at once.

    The correct solution would be for BMW to interrogate the computer (an airbag deployment should be considered a “crash” for data-recording purposes, so it should keep that data), find out which sensor called for deployment, and figure out why that sensor failed.

    While the vehicle is out of warranty, I would hope most automakers would make an exception for the parts of the car that explode in your face.

  • avatar
    LeMansteve

    “if you have an X5, particularly one that is close to, or past, its tenth birthday, you might want to have the bags checked.”

    How exactly does one check the airbags? What are you supposed to check for? It’s not as easy as checking the tires. Further, there is a lot we don’t know about this incident, so jumping to the conclusion that this could have been prevented by checking the airbags may not be accurate.

    Every car does a SRS check every time you start it up. If there is a fault anywhere in the system, it would be detected at that time. If I drove into the BMW dealership and asked them to check the airbag system, I wouldn’t expect them to do much more than plug into DIS and do a system check, plus maybe a visual inspection of the sensors.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      “How exactly does one check the airbags? What are you supposed to check for? It’s not as easy as checking the tires. ”

      Interrogate the restraints systems module for diagnostic trouble codes and crash sensor data.

      • 0 avatar
        LeMansteve

        Isn’t that accomplished in the SRS check every time the car is started? Wouldn’t that trigger the SRS light?

        • 0 avatar
          danio3834

          At this point, what the module saw at startup is irrelevant. They need to know what it saw when the bags deployed.

          • 0 avatar
            Veee8

            “At this point, what the module saw at startup is irrelevant. They need to know what it saw when the bags deployed.”

            Right on.
            Part 2 should be interesting…

        • 0 avatar
          MBella

          Actually SRS is constantly checking the system. Other than the module applying a very minuscule voltage to measure the resistance, there not much more that can be done to test the system. What’s funny about the 10 year line, is that according to the fine print an almost any owners manual, you are supposed to replace them every 10 years. Of course nobody does, but it keeps the lawyers satisfied.

      • 0 avatar
        sirwired

        But if there are ANY airbag error codes at ANY time, the airbag light turns on and won’t ever go off until you have the system checked. So again, what proactive step is somebody supposed to do? When there are no trouble codes, nothing the dealer does with their computer is going to ever reveal anything.

        • 0 avatar
          MBella

          No, it won’t. There really isn’t a whole bunch you can do. Just hope that you won’t end up being one of the few statistical anomalies where the system fails.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    “a 2002 X5 3.0i with the rare manual transmission.”

    There’s your problem: a RARE manual transmission! If the owner would not have bucked the system by ordering a row-your-own gear set, this wouldn’t have happened.

    The entire auto industry is geared to automatic trannies now, and if the norm is upset by someone ordering different, how DARE that person to throw that wrench in the works!

    Of course I’m joking – sort of… Perhaps the sensors on these things are too touchy?

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

      If having a manual trans in a BMW translates into a slightly increased risk of accidental airbag deployment, put my name on the list of those willing to take that risk. :)

    • 0 avatar
      burgersandbeer

      It’s almost hard to believe there was ever a time when a manufacturer would put a manual in something like a 5,000 lb CUV. I would love to hear the story of how that decision made it past product planners. I’m also curious how many they actually sold – it can be hard enough finding a manual 3-series worth buying, nevermind an X5.

  • avatar
    segfault

    Geez… The owner is fortunate this didn’t happen while he was leaned over the dashboard cleaning the windshield.

    • 0 avatar
      RideHeight

      Ultra-Heimlich.

    • 0 avatar
      LeMansteve

      Friend of mine had a mid-90s Prelude. The airbag went off unexpectedly as he was turning the wheel, sending his thumb through his lower lip.

      • 0 avatar
        Toad

        I think about this every time I see somebody in the passenger seat with their feet on the dashboard. That passenger had better be limber because if the airbag goes off they are going to have ankles for earrings VERY quickly.

        • 0 avatar
          JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

          Toad, I see it as well, all too often. I live near (and often travel on) a highway going towards Florida. I see idiots with their feet up on the dash all the time. 99% of the time, the vehicle has Arkansas plates. Take from that what you will. Its usually the same people ignoring “KEEP RIGHT EXCEPT TO PASS” signs, refusing to signal when cutting unsafely into your lane, driving during/after dusk with no headlights on and other such bonehead moves.

          On an unrelated note, vehicle seen most often with no headlights on when they should be: Nissan Altima, 2002 and newer. I guess its because the instrument cluster is lit at all times, and there isnt an automatic headlamps feature that I know of on these cars (the 05 I had for a short time certainly didnt have it).

        • 0 avatar
          sgeffe

          I believe there was a post in this very forum, back under a former Managing Editor with a predilection for asinine comments about the “stereotypical” Subaru ownership demographic, which had some very graphic, arguably NSFW, pix on this very subject.

          (Though the text of the article, written by an ER doc, IIRC, was an eye-opener, though certainly something that someone with an iota of common sense would realize.)

          If I ever see an accident coming, and I’m in a right presence of mind (and there’s no avoiding it by using the wheel), I’ll make sure I cover my ears and head with my hands, and let the belts and bag do their jobs without bracing; hopefully I’d avoid burns and hearing damage this way. If you hold your hand on the horn in a situation as this, you’re asking for instant amputation.

        • 0 avatar
          kvndoom

          No matter how many times I tell my stubborn-ass fiancee this, she still does it!

          Didn’t TTAC have a pretty gruesome article from a doctor (with pictures!) about this back in the Bertel days? I wish I could find it!

        • 0 avatar
          VolandoBajo

          Ankle earrings, or they are going to suffer great balls of fire, a moon shot blast into orbit.

          I would never put my feet on a dashboard of a car with an airbag at any time, for any reason, nor would I let anyone else I didn’t have a good reason to want to do bodily harm to.

  • avatar

    I have seen a couple of seemingly similar cases at the insurance auction. The bodywork was solid but the airbags were deployed. On one of the cars I did notice some melted wires leading to the fuse box so I would check all the wiring and see if there was some sort of short that caused the issue. I know the V8 models had an electronic thermostat that liked to short out but I am not familiar with an issue like it on the V6 models.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    My money is on a bad ground somewhere in the harness.

    • 0 avatar
      indi500fan

      If a bad ground can actually cause an inadvertent deployment (as opposed to a diagnostic trouble code) that’s a terrible failure mode. I’d expect to see lots of these incidents in older vehicles which if they are happening don’t get publicized much.

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      It’s a short, either internal in the module, or external. The circuit has to be completed for the bag to fire. A bad ground is not going to complete the circuit.

  • avatar

    What’s remarkable to me is how infrequently these accidental deployments occur. Any system will have failures, and the modern car is a compendium of sophisticated system design. Yet we’ve gone for many years without a significant percentage of accidental deployments in an aging fleet equipped with airbags. Unless there is a tsunami of hidden deployments, these things remain a marvel.

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    Could be caused by corrosion in the electrical system. I wonder if the vehicle ever sustained flood or other water damage.

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      A very popular location for an airbag control unit is in the center console. This places it in the center of the car, in a space least likely to be affected by a crash. The one problem here is that frequently the driver’s Big Gulp spends time very close to it. Spilling some could very well cause something like this.

  • avatar
    Zykotec

    An Englishman who frequented another forum I used to frequently post on had a similar experience in a Ford Focus some years ago. He was leaving a parking space, and the 1 inch drop off the curb (at low speed) set off all his airbags simultaneously, smashing the windshield and I believe one side window, several interior panels, and broke the wrist of his front passenger. As the car was around 7-8 years old, the damage was enough to write it off.
    With the amount of electronics and sensors in modern cars that are getting older , this is bound to happen occassionally, but I’d still choose a car with (even a Takate) airbag over one without as a daily driver/family car.

  • avatar
    tooloud10

    2006 model is still the E53 first-generation X5. The E70 arrived for the ’07 model year.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    My friend’s brand new Subaru deployed the driver’s side airbag (early 2000’s) immediately after he started the car. He had it repaired, and drove it without incident for many years.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    I wonder if BMW sensors have some opposition to either heat or dust. Same thing happened on that rough road segment on TG, in Africa. Clarkson had a 5-Series estate, around the same age as this X5.

  • avatar
    shaker

    Could that “sleeveless t-shirt” passenger airbag become a “wife beater”?

    Story at 11.

    The more I read the Internets, the more I’m tempted to pull the airbag fuse in my Malibu…

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

      The airbags in your car have a much greater chance of doing more good than harm.

      Airbag malfunctions are quite rare, even considering the massive Takata issues. 7 (so far) deaths out of MILLIONS of units in service? Thats really not bad, statisticly speaking. Not to say the Takata issue should be ignored, of course not, but the point is that its not all that common considering how many vehicles are so equipped vs. how many have experienced the issue. Same goes (even moreso) for accidental deployment.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    Two alleged incidents is nothing to panic about. Shiite happens; expecting equipment to function perfectly 100.0% of the time into perpetuity is unrealistic.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

      I agree. Its something worth keeping an eye on to see if a trend does indeed develop, but I wouldnt be freaking out if I owned an older X5 right now.

  • avatar
    Cabriolet

    i like to play around with old cars. My last car was a Mazda Miata 1991 with a single airbag in the steering wheel. I was told by a dealer that most of the parts for the airbags were out of stock with in 5 years of manufacture. The system seemed to work as the airbag light would go on for 30 seconds and then shut off. I did find out that i could have the module rebuilt if it went bad but it worked when i sold the car. I purchased a low mileage VW Cabriolet 25 years old and had an airbag. A few years ago the owner had switched the steering wheel but still had the old wheel and airbag. I was missing a cable for the airbag and called VW and they told me that when the car was 10 years old they recalled all of the parts and would not sell them because the parts were over 10 years old. After reading what Honda owners are going thru i am happy i have no air bag. I have 8 airbags in my VW GTI but it is only a few years old. I still think the best safety device is the seat belts which i use all of the time. I have worked on older cars 8-12 years old and the airbag light stays on because of poor connections and bad ground connections and they can be a nightmare putting them back in good condition.

  • avatar
    beastpilot

    I really do wish all my airbags gave me a warning before they went off. Even 3-4 seconds before would allow me to avoid almost all accidents.

    • 0 avatar
      Exfordtech

      The decision making process for an airbag deployment (impact to triggering of crash sensors in a prescribed sequence to firing the bags) is measured in milliseconds. Unless your supplemental restraint control module is capable of predicting the future, in other words, seeing the crash before it occurs 3 to 4 seconds ahead of time, your wish won’t be granted.

  • avatar
    baconator

    Gets me thinking about my track car, an ’88 with its original airbags still in the dash. I can’t imagine that these have an unlimited life span, and premature deployment is certainly a foreseeable failure mode!

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      Most track cars have theirs removed. Most owners manuals say they need replacement after 10 years, although nobody does, because it would be too expensive on an old car.

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