Another case of defective airbags. Should Toyota replace the entire truck?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jan 01, 2002

Dear Tom and Ray:

My 1994 Toyota T-100's air bag deployed while I was parked in my garage with the motor running. I had my seat belt on, and I reached down to the passenger side, took a small handicapped parking sign and put it down behind the seat. It dropped a couple of inches down onto the steel plate that covers the tire-changing equipment. I have not moved the truck since. Toyota engineers came to my house and examined the truck, but I have not received any answers as to why the air bag deployed. Have you heard of this happening? I am worried about just replacing the air bag, because if my wife or daughter had been behind the wheel, she could have been seriously injured. I received injuries to my teeth and will need two implants. Toyota said it would pay reasonable dental bills, which is great, but I want to know if this can happen again. -- Jens

RAY: Of course Toyota's happy to pay reasonable dental bills ... as opposed to unreasonable legal bills!

TOM: Unfortunately, we can't guarantee that it won't happen again, Jens, since we don't know why it happened.

RAY: I can tell you my guess as to what happened, but it's only a guess. This vehicle uses a central air-bag sensor, in addition to a couple of sensors in the front bumper. More and more vehicles have been switching over to central units -- housed in the middle of the vehicle somewhere -- that measure deceleration.

TOM: Obviously, if you hit something, you're going to decelerate very quickly, and this electronic accelerometer measures that and feeds the information to a computer, which decides whether to fire the air bag.

RAY: The advantages of a central sensor with an accelerometer are that A) it's cheaper and more easily replaceable, and B) it can distinguish between severe accidents and minor accidents, and deploy the new multi-stage air bags accordingly. So if you have a collision at 25 mph, you won't get as forceful a bag-in-the-face as you would in a 60-mph crash. That's good.

TOM: But in your case, my guess is that the central sensor on your truck is located about where you dropped that handicapped sign. Of course, striking it with something shouldn't cause an air-bag deployment. It should have required that one of the bumper sensors signal an impact, too.

RAY: But with all new and emerging technologies, there are always kinks. And unfortunately, you appear to have stumbled, face first, into one.

TOM: Will it happen again? We can tell you that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has no investigation under way concerning the T-100, which tells us that there have not been many other such incidents reported to them.

RAY: But you should go ahead and report yours. The NHTSA Auto Safety Hotline is (888) 327-4236, or you can do it online from our site, the Car Talk section of

TOM: And you should push Toyota for a convincing explanation. All air-bag systems have self-diagnostic systems, and Toyota should be able to tap into your truck's computer and read what the computer says about your air-bag deployment. That might give you a lot more information about what went wrong.

RAY: But if Toyota can't provide you with sufficient evidence that whatever happened won't happen again, then I'd push them to buy this truck back from you for a fair price and take it off the road. Good luck, Jens, and let us know how it turns out.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter