Why I refused to fix my deadly Takata airbags… until now

After three years of being chased by Mercedes-Benz, I finally came to my senses and changed the deadly airbags in my car, here is the story of why it took so long.

The world’s largest recall has been in place since 2015. Roughly 40 million cars fitted with faulty Takata airbags have been hunted down. Governments around the world have enacted new laws, and forced car companies and owners to take action in fixing potentially deadly airbags.

As an owner of seven cars and a lover of statistics, I have been following the situation for a number of years. For me, the idea of replacing a potentially deadly airbag which would only be deployed in the event of an accident carried too many ‘ifs’ and, having had one of my cars never quite be the same after having an airbag replacement, I’d been extremely reluctant to get it done.

Before we get in to it, let’s put some facts on the table. The recall has been well documented and so far, around 30 people around the world have died from a faulty Takata airbag deployment.

Of the roughly 40,000,000 cars affected (some of which are likely no longer on the road), your chance of dying from a faulty airbag so far is roughly 0.00000075 per cent.

According to a professor at the University of Queensland, Australians (who make up 24 million of the roughly 8 billion people on earth) have a roughly one in 12,000 or 0.000083 per cent chance of being struck by lightning, and one in 8,145,060 chance (0.00000012 percent) of winning the lottery.

So you actually have more chance of winning the lottery in Australia, than being killed by a Takata airbag. Of course, statistics can be skewed to suit any argument and we’re not taking into account the significant number of people that have been injured (but not killed) by Takata airbags.

Plus, as time goes on and as these airbags continue to sit dormant, collecting moisture and worsening in condition, the chances of them firing shrapnel into unsuspecting drivers increases exponentially. The point is, while the chances of winning the global lottery of a fatal airbag deployment is pretty slim, why take the chance at all?

It’s the epitome of stupid not to get it changed, right? It’s free and there are no consequences. Right?

For years I would have said ‘no’. Actually I would’ve have said something prior to the no starting with ‘F’, but let’s keep this PG.

In 2017 I took my Ferrari 458 Speciale, a prized and collectible possession, to have its airbags changed. In the process, the bottom of the passenger-side dashboard has never been put back on properly. It looks messy, and completely triggers my OCD when it comes to cars.

I thought it was just my car, but having looked at plenty of other similar models, the airbag replacement process has had the same effect. It’s likely the airbags in that car were never really designed to be replaced… as the Italians say, it’s ‘Normale’.

I bit the bullet with the Jaguar F-Pace family car given my wife pretty much refused to drive it unless I had the airbags fixed. The folks at Jaguar did a stellar job in replacing the airbags without any noticeable difference to the car’s aesthetics.

My Lamborghini Huracan Performante, Lotus Elise, and Audi Q2 didn’t suffer the issue as they were all made in 2018 or later and my Aston Martin doesn’t use Takata airbags (apparently), which left the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG.

If you ask me the SLS, the modern-day Gullwing, is an instant classic. A car that will likely see its future value soar as the last naturally-aspirated V8 Gullwing Mercedes-Benz ever made.

I could go on, but you get the point. No one was touching my car. Ever. I had talked to a few other SLS owners and the sentiment was shared… leave our cars alone.

For what seemed like years, Mercedes-Benz chased me like I owed them a bad debt. Phone call after phone call, letters in the mail with big red letters telling me I could die.

I hadn’t been chased so hard since I forgot to return a copy of Donnie Darko to Civic Video back in 2002. I was almost tempted to report the company for harassment. But they are just doing their job, and doing it pretty damn well.

Besides, prior to the Pandemic there were growing calls in Queensland to refuse registration renewal for vehicles that hadn’t yet had the airbags replaced.

My wife kept seeing the letters and getting angry at me for not changing the airbags. Insisting that the kids can’t go in it until I do.

I kept bringing out the statistics, explaining to her the kids would be more likely to be abducted by aliens than die from the (probably) un-deadly airbags in the SLS, but she didn’t believe me (for good reason), nor understood why I just wouldn’t change the damn things.

Then, in the middle of a pandemic where people had stopped driving, I stood by and watched as some less-than-stellar individual decided to rear end another vehicle at the lights, pushing it into the car in front and setting off far too many airbags in the process.

It wasn’t even a big accident, but it was big enough to have the airbags deploy.

Then it dawned on me – I don’t have to cause the accident to have an airbag deployment. That seems like an obvious realisation in hindsight, but I had always argued that I don’t crash cars, so I am not too worried.

Moral of the story? I thought about my two boys coming for drives with their dad and how I would feel if something happened to them due to my stubbornness and, well, general neglect.

So I called Mercedes-Benz and enquired about availability of parts for an airbag replacement on an SLS that same day. During that process, through a mutual friend, I even managed to convince another SLS owner to join me with his car.

From there I started asking around for the best AMG technician to do the job in Brisbane. After a significant back and forward – where I was told there are only qualified technicians at every dealer and they’ll all do a stellar job – it was decided Mercedes-Benz Toowong would replace the airbags.

The man in charge of the job was Chris Chikonyora, a 10 year veteran technician with AMG that had replaced airbags for five other SLS owners, and more than 60 Mercedes-Benz vehicles in general. We brought a camera crew along and decided to document the process from start to finish.

According to Chikonyora, the SLS is the most complicated of all affected Mercedes-Benz vehicles to have an airbag replacement. The process takes between six and eight hours and is so delicate and complicated that Mercedes-Benz doesn’t have a time limit for its workshops to do the job.

They simply do it and take as long as it needs to be done right.

“For me this is more than just passion, I am a bit OCD with the interior, I like to keep it the way it came in,” Mr Chikonyora told CarExpert.

That’s music to the ears of any SLS owner that is as OCD with their cars as yours truly.

To be honest, it was a little harrowing watching them dismantle nearly the entire front of the SLS interior to get the passenger airbag out. The carbon fibre centre console, the dash, the glovebox… everything has to come out or get loose to remove the passenger airbag.

On the contrary, the driver airbag is roughly a 30 minute job with a few simple screws.

Much to my surprise, Mercedes-Benz doesn’t just replace the airbag in the steering wheel, it pretty much replaces the entire central wheel housing because the replacement comes as one unit. Can you imagine the cost of this globally?

The SLS part being replaced is unique to the car, so somewhere there’s thousands of SLS steering parts and hundreds of thousands of Mercedes-Benz centre steering wheel sections from other cars.

Most are perfectly fine, but the company doesn’t want to take the risk of having airbags fitted to delicate parts at local workshops. No one is taking any chances here, thankfully.

So how do you replace an airbag? First you disconnect the negative battery terminal as airbags become inoperable without power –a simple fact that isn’t common knowledge.

From there, there are two T30 screws on the back of the steering wheel that allow it to come out.

The bolt connecting the steering wheel to the car is single use. Mr Chikonyora told us the same bolt could definitely be used again, but Mercedes-Benz doesn’t take any chances. New bolt it is.

Once the airbag is removed it has to be scanned by a special Mercedes-Benz app, so the part being removed and the part being installed are linked to the VIN and stored centrally for future reference. The airbag coming out of the SLS clearly said 2010 on it, whilst the new one was from 2019.

After the driver airbag is replaced, the insanely complicated process of removing or loosening the entire dash, centre console and plenty of other bits to get to the passenger side airbag begins.

Replacements in the previous-generation W204 C-Class require a similar process, but we’re told it’s not as complicated as that in the SLS.

Mercedes-Benz provides a full guide for every authorised workshop to do the airbag replacement in any of its vehicles, but if it takes eight or so hours for a 10-year AMG veteran to do the job, we can assure you it’s not a simple DIY task.

We watched, we held our breath as delicate carbon parts were removed, we considered taking some valium, but after what seemed like forever, the car was finally back in one piece. Then came the real test.

Did it look and feel the same as before? I moved bits around, pressed on things with decent force to see if they were in properly.

Nothing budged, nothing even made a tiny noise. The SLS was driven a reasonable distance to listen out for any squeaks or noises, but in the end it was good as new. Actually, it’s better! The steering wheel buttons feel a little nicer to press down now.

Mr Chikonyora’s extreme attention to detail showed pretty clearly, the interior hadn’t changed despite being dismantled and put back together. A huge sigh of relief from this owner. Now, my kids can jump in without my wife complaining – and for me, the uneasy feeling of ‘what if?’ no longer lingers.

Moral of the story? Don’t be an idiot like me. Doesn’t matter what car you own, if you intend to drive it get your airbags replaced. It’s simply not worth it, despite how slim a chance you have of an accident with a faulty airbag.

Too bad it took me more than three years to come to that conclusion, but better late than never.