Once I drove a car without brakes. Intentionally. It was my first car: a 1963 Volvo P1800, the Swedish idea of a sports car with stubby fins, white in color, just like The Saint’s. The brakes quit abruptly. Push the pedal to the floor and nothing happened. But I could still downshift and had the emergency brake, so I drove it home. I was 22 and stupid, if that isn’t being redundant.
But I got away with it.
Now, 32 years later, the same guy who climbed behind the wheel of that brakeless Volvo contemplates the burgeoning Takata air bag recall. I’ve been manfully ignoring it, but like the radioactive blob in one of those 1950s horror movies it keeps getting bigger. Last week the recall doubled to 34 million cars, the biggest recall in automotive history.
The air bags, which are supposed to save you in an accident — a nice touch of irony — instead can spray metal shrapnel into your face, even after a minor fender bender. Six people have died. A hundred more have been injured, some with gruesome facial injuries. Nothing like someone having their throat cut by an air bag or a shard of steel jammed in their eye to catch public attention.
This has been gathering for years. Now seems the moment when even the most complacent driver looks up from his silage, utters a worried “moo,” and goes shuffling off to find out whether his silver bean of a 2005 Honda Odyssey is among those now being recalled. The van that my darling boys and precious wife drive.
The government has a website — safercar.gov — good old government, catching business when it falls in a swoon. Easy to find. And look, a big yellow button marked “Search for recall by VIN.”
Trot out to the driveway, open the driver’s side door. The expected big white sticker. Fall to my knees. Squint at the tiny type: “MFD. BY HONDA MFG. OF ALABAMA.” Of course, Made in America. I can’t even work into a towering “Remember Pearl Harbor” sense of betrayal. “THIS VEHICLE CONFORMS TO ALL APPLICABLE FEDERAL MOTOR VEHICLE SAFETY AND THEFT PREVENTION STANDARDS IN EFFECT ON THE DATE OF MANUFACTURE.”
Ha! All the good THAT did! Too bad Congress didn’t pass the “Don’t Bungle Producing The Air Bags So Badly That They Start Killing People Act of 2005.” All of this might have been avoided.
There, the VIN, a blindness inducing jumble. “5″ or is that an “S”? “FNRL38″ or is that a “B”? And so on. Seventeen digits.
Back to the computer, plug ‘em in.
“Number of Open Recalls: 0.”
Hooray, right? Wrong. Thanks to the orange box reading “Please Note: If you are checking to see if your vehicle is affected by the Takata air bag recalls, it generally takes anywhere from a few days to several weeks for automakers to gather individual VINs associated with a recall. It is important that you check back periodically as a recall on your vehicle may not show up immediately.”
Oh. It is important, is it? Another important task that may or may not help keep me in some infinitesimal way.
So do you drive the car and try not to think about it? Or what? Walk? Wear a hockey mask? Buy a new car? A new car that might also have some defective part you’ll find out about in a decade.
Sigh. Keep driving. Try … not … to … think … about … it.
Earlier this month, Malcolm Gladwell published a lengthy article in the New Yorker on the safety of the Ford Pinto, which my generation knows as the pinup for unsafe cars — they burst into flames if you rear-ended them. Only, as Gladwell demonstrates, they didn’t, at least not any more than any other of the cars at the time. “In 1975-76, 1.9 percent of all cars on the road were Pintos,” Gladwell writes, “and Pintos were involved in 1.9 percent of all fatal fires.”
Whoops. Turns out the Pinto wasn’t more dangerous than any other lousy mid-1970s car.
You know what is the most dangerous part of any car, don’t you? What causes tens of thousands of deaths every year?
But we can’t recall those, can we? So instead we fixate on these one-in-a-million risks — which are a big deal if you or your loved one is that one unlucky driver out of a million. For the rest of us, it’s all just part of the endless, confusing, scary hassle that is modern life. Drive safely. If you can.