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Deployed Takata manufactured airbags are seen on the driver and passenger side of a 2007 Dodge Charger at a recycled auto parts lot in Detroit, Michigan May 20, 2015. (Rebecca Cook/REUTERS)
Deployed Takata manufactured airbags are seen on the driver and passenger side of a 2007 Dodge Charger at a recycled auto parts lot in Detroit, Michigan May 20, 2015. (Rebecca Cook/REUTERS)

Driving Concerns

Can I remove air bags if they are recalled, but can't be replaced? Add to ...

I own a 2005 BMW 325i. My dealer sent me a letter last year that the air bag canister on the driver's side needed replacement. The one on the passenger’s side had previously been replaced. Last spring, my dealer told me they still don’t have replacement parts . I am concerned about the potential of a deadly accident every time I get behind the wheel. - Ludo

The potential danger with the Takata air bags isn’t that they won’t open in a crash - it’s that they could open with too much force and spray metal shards through the cabin.

Worldwide, more than100 million vehicles from at least 13 manufacturers need air bag inflators replaced after at least 11 reported deaths. None of those incidents involved BMW, and there have been zero reported deaths or injuries in Canada, said the Automobile Protection Association.

“The risk here is remote,” said APA president George Iny in an e-mail.

Takata uses the chemical ammonium nitrate to create an explosion that inflates air bags in a crash. Over time, if that chemical is exposed to heat and humidity, it can burn too fast.

The recall covers front air bags that don’t have a desiccant - a chemical drying agent. It doesn’t cover side air bags without the desiccant.

To date, more than 4.3 million Takata air bag inflators have been subject to a recall in Canada, Transport Canada said.

“The risk to Canadians is low since the defect is linked to long exposure to high humidity and temperatures,” reads the Transport Canada website.

In Canada, owners may apply to Transport Canada to deactivate the airbags, and permission may be granted in some cases. However, BMW, Transport Canada and the APA do not recommend deactivating air bags. Globe Drive was told by all three that the risk from the Takata air bags in Canada is extremely low.

"While the department does run an airbag deactivation program, airbag deactivation is very rarely used and only intended for use in extremely rare cases —  for those with certain medical conditions and seeking airbag deactivation under the advice of a medical professional,” said Tranport Canada spokeswoman Roxane Marchand in an e-mail. “Seat belts and airbags work in tandem to keep vehicle occupants safe. Using seatbelts without an airbag can compromise an occupant’s safety. While certain airbags have been recalled, generally speaking, the risk of injury is much greater without an airbag than with one.”

The deactivation form does not require a letter or certificate from a doctor. According to Transport Canada’s website, even if you do get permission to have yours removed, mechanics are not required to deactivate air bags if they don’t want to. You will have to pay for the deactivation yourself and sign a statement absolving the mechanic of liability. 

The notice is in the mail

Getting a replacement could take a while. You’ll get a letter in the mail when it’s ready, Transport Canada said.

“Older vehicles get notices first and are supposed to be at the front of the line,” Iny said. “BMW has relatively few of the suspect air bags in its vehicles and Canada is low on their priority list - expect to wait until 2017 for a replacement.”

The 2005 3 Series is included in a 2015 Transport Canada recall of more than 30,800 BMWs with the driver side Takata air bags. This year, Transport Canada issued another recall of more than 104,151 vehicles with the same issue.

In 2014, nearly 41,000 Canadian 3 Series cars were recalled to replace the passenger side air bags.

“I’m sure the BMW dealer would love to swap this guy’s second air bag, but he hasn’t got it - and this is a massive recall,” said Raynald Marchand, general manager, programs with the Canada Safety Council. “Takata has a lot of bags to make and there’s a huge back order - so in this case, I’d just get it removed until they have the new one,” adding that the dealer could put in the new one once it’s available. 

But is it safe to drive without an air bag?

Raynald Marchand said Transport Canada does not actually require air bags in vehicles - but, because the U.S. does require them, they’re found on all new vehicles here, he said.

“In Canada, under Transport Canada regulations, cars are required to meet the safety standard without the air bag.” he said. “As long as you’re wearing a seat belt, you’ll be fine.”

But BMW won’t allow its dealers to deactivate air bags - and customers should keep air bags installed until replacements are available, said BMW spokesman Rob Dexter.

“Our judgment of the risk factor is in favour of leaving the air bags in place,” Dexter said. “There have been no incidents in Canada.”

BMW is waiting for replacement air bags like everybody else, Dexter said.

“We are fighting for our share - we don’t actually have a date at this point,” he said. “The number for BMW is a drop in the bucket compared to what Toyota or GM or Fiat Chrysler has to deal with - so everybody’s lining up for the same thing.”

When is a recall issued?

“Generally, a special service campaign is a voluntary action taken by a vehicle manufacturer to address issues that are not likely to affect safety,” Transport Canada’s website said. “A recall is used for issues that are likely to affect safety.”

Once a company notifies Transport Canada of the problem, they have 60 days to get a letter to customers, Transport Canada said.

But if your vehicle is recalled, it’s up to you to take your vehicle into the dealer to get the problem fixed - once that fix is actually available.

If your vehicle is recalled, it’s up to you to take your vehicle into the dealer to get the problem fixed - if that fix is available.

Last month, actor Anton Yelchin was killed when struck by his recalled 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee. In April, Fiat Chrysler recalled more than 1.1 million cars worldwide, including nearly 52,000 in Canada, because of a confusing shifter that causes drivers to not know if the car is in park or neutral. .

“Shift lever design and gear position placement were standardized in the 1960s after many deaths and injuries,” Iny said. “We are very disappointed with some recent shift designs, which are confusing or not designed for an emergency.”

But, a recall doesn’t mean that the problem will be instantly fixed. Fiat Chrysler had no fix for the vehicle available.

In a May 24 letter to dealers, Fiat Chrysler said it anticipated having the software updates required to fix the problem no later than July or August.

Do auto makers have to fix safety issues by a deadline in Canada?

“The Motor Vehicle Safety Act requires the auto maker to file progress reports listing the percentage of vehicles repaired for eight quarters,” Iny said. “I suppose the thinking around 1971 was that two years would be plenty of time.”

While companies have to file progress reports, Transport Canada cannot penalize companies if their correction rates are low. 

But legislation has been proposed to change that, Transport Canada said. The Strengthening Motor Vehicle Safety for Canadians Act would allow Transport Canada to fine companies that don’t repair safety issues.

How they find you

If your car has been recalled, you’ll get a letter in the mail - if they know where to find you.

“Some car makers are cheap and comply by sending notices to the last address in their records rather than the current address of the current owner,” Iny said. “It’s better to pay the provincial vehicle registration authorities for up to date info.”

Often, if you’ve moved, or if you bought the car used from someone else, you won’t be on the mailing list .

“It’ll go to the old owner or your old address and will end up in the round file,” Raynald Marchand said. “Go to the manufacturer’s website and register yourself — or get into the habit of checking for recalls on Transport Canada’s website.”

You can also go to many manufacturer’s websites and check your vehicle identification number (VIN) for recalls.

If you get your vehicle serviced at the dealer, they’ll know about any recalls for your vehicle, Raynald Marchand said.

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