Look Beyond Quick Fixes for Glitchy Safety Technology

Dear Car Talk:

What causes my wife's low-mileage 2013 Honda Civic SI's airbag warning light to come on occasionally? For the past several months, the light has been coming on after driving for a short time or sometimes when the vehicle is first started.

The local dealership estimated the repairs, which included pulling the steering wheel, would be about $500. I discovered that yanking on the shoulder seat belt several times would cause the warning light to disappear for several days, but that the light would eventually return.
Is there a bad connection in the shoulder seat belt system? Is there a quick fix for this problem? -- Reid

Yes, I have a quick fix for your wife, Reid. She should sit in the back and make you drive.

I think you should ask the dealer for a little more information before forking over the $500. He wants to remove the steering wheel, which suggests he thinks the problem is something related to the airbag itself, the clock spring in the steering column or a connection in that vicinity.

If yanking on the shoulder belt while you're wearing it reliably makes the light go off, then the problem may not be in the steering column. It may be the seat belt latch. The latch, near the driver's right hip, where you insert the seat belt clip, contains a tiny switch that lets the computer know that your seat belt is being worn. If that switch is dirty or out of adjustment, that would cause your airbag light to come on. The problem could also be at the other end of the seat belt, where it spools up. There's a pretensioner there that cinches the belt tighter in an accident, to keep you in a better position to avoid injury. If there's a problem with the pretensioner, your airbag light will come on, too.

So start by asking the dealer for a more specific diagnosis. Ask him if he scanned the car, and if he did, what did he learn? Ask what, exactly, he thinks is causing the problem, and what the fix entails. If you're not convinced, ask another Honda-friendly shop to scan the car for you, and see what information that turns up. It may tell you exactly what part is faulty. If it turns out to be a fault with the switch inside the latch -- that's something that any good mechanic can try to clean for you. But if it's more complicated than that, I'd put on your Kevlar pants and go to the dealer.

First of all, Honda offers a lifetime warranty on their seat belts. So if it's something like the pretensioner, your repair may be free. Second, airbags are pretty important. They can mean the difference between life and death. So when you're dealing with key safety technology, it makes sense to go to a place that has the experience and the tools to do it right. And the liability insurance to make a big payout to your heirs if they muck it up.

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