This article was first published in the second-quarter 2016 edition of Personal Finance magazine.

Would I buy a car without airbags? Never. Would I allow someone I love to drive a car without airbags? Not if I can help it. Am I aware that the explosive deployment of airbags occasionally results in serious injuries to infants, pregnant women and other passengers? Of course. Do airbags add a premium to new-car prices and constitute a large chunk of accident-repair bills? Definitely.

And there you have it – an apparent cost-benefit “conundrum”. But no. Russel Meiring, a spokesman for ER24, a private provider of emergency medical care, says: “Paramedics across the board, me included, have seen the benefits of having airbags in vehicles. Numerous tests have shown that they significantly decrease the number of deaths and injuries in motor vehicle collisions.”

Having said that, he adds that airbags do not come with a guarantee of positive results. They can cause, rather than prevent, injuries, Meiring says, when passengers are not wearing seat belts and, for example, a child is propelled forward in a collision and has already made contact with the dashboard when the airbag deploys. “This could lead to serious injury or even death,” he says.

Does he believe that the additional cost of airbags should be a factor when you are choosing one model of car over another? In other words, is “value for money” a legitimate consideration? Meiring is firm on this one: “I understand that, in our current economic state, vehicles can be expensive and airbags do not seem like a necessity. But tests have shown, time and time again, that when airbags are used in conjunction with safety belts, they do indeed save lives.”

A similarly strong message comes from road-safety organisation Arrive Alive, which has no doubt about the efficacy of airbags, noting that passenger fatalities accounted for 38.3 percent of road deaths in South Africa during the recent festive season. The organisation’s spokesman, Advocate Johan Jonck, says: “We believe that airbags can save lives and prevent additional serious injury for those who are buckled up.”

But, he says, such protection is likely to occur at lower speeds. “At high speed, neither airbag nor seat belt might offer much protection,” he says, referring to the natural forces at play when speeding objects (cars and their occupants) come to a sudden stop. It is worth noting here that the airbag is a supplemental restraint system – hence the “SRS” you will find stamped on airbag covers. In other words, they are designed to be used in conjunction with seat belts. While your seat belt (ideally, equipped with pre-tensioners) does a fine job of restraining your torso, it’s not quite enough: your rapidly moving body needs some kind of energy-absorbing cushion to prevent it from smacking into the steering wheel or windscreen. Alarmingly, Arrive Alive’s research suggests that 40 percent of South African motorists don’t use their seat belts.

Recently, a little urban runabout called the Datsun GO came in for a lot of flak because it was not equipped with airbags (the manufacturer later announced the availability of models with this feature). This came as a disappointment to prospective customers in South Africa, who rather liked the car’s cute design and, above all, its affordable price tag. This raises the question: if you know that airbags save lives, should you even consider buying a car without them? What about that second-hand Citi Golf in good nick that might seem just right as your daughter’s first car? You, on the other hand, probably drive a recent-model car with all the mod-cons, including anti-lock brakes and multiple airbags. Does it make sense to let your precious offspring drive around in a car that not only has no airbags, but was designed before the motor industry (Volvo a notable exception) started paying serious attention to things such as crumple zones?

Show us the money

You don’t have to pay a bomb for a high level of safety. Honda’s entry-level Jazz 1.2 Trend manual, which sells for R193 500, comes with, as standard, two front, two side and two “curtain” airbags (for rear-seat passengers). It’s worth noting that the 2015-model Jazz achieved an impressive five stars in a Euro New Car Assessment Programme crash test, scoring 93 percent for driver protection and 85 percent for the front-seat passenger. Of course, some luxury cars come with as many as 11 airbags, but so they should at those prices.

What about the cost of replacing airbags – and repairing associated damage – after an accident? This is where the issue gets a little thorny. Auto & General’s Antoinette O’Callaghan says: “The high cost of replacement airbags contributes to higher repair costs, which would ultimately affect premiums paid by customers. A high cost of repair could also contribute to more vehicles being written off, as they are not economical to repair.”

Additional damage may be caused to the instrument cluster and associated electronics, dashboard (where the airbag cover is not replaceable), seat-belt stalks, head restraints that deploy (mostly in convertibles), plastic covers, seat covers (sometimes expensive leather) and the SBK cable (the main cable to the vehicle battery).

An Outsurance spokesman agrees that the cost of replacing airbags is “significant”. Because these are safety-critical components, he says, the company insists on using original equipment manufacturer-approved panel beaters to replace them. O’Callaghan agrees: “Replacement airbags are procured through manufacturer-approved dealers, thereby ensuring they meet the manufacturer’s warranty specifications. We do not authorise any alternative, or second-hand, airbags to be fitted.”

Some examples: the recommended retail price for a steering-wheel airbag for the current model VW Golf TSI is R13 200. An Audi driver’s A4 airbag costs R12 500 (the BMW 320i price is about the same) and a Mercedes-Benz C-180 airbag costs R17 160. And it’s not just a case of replacing the airbag and resetting the control unit and sensors, either. Charles Canning, the co-owner of Cannings, a major repair shop in Cape Town, says that a deploying airbag is a “violent” pyrotechnic event that often breaks the windscreen and destroys the dashboard.

Canning agrees that airbag replacement and the associated costs will often push a repair bill over the edge, prompting the insurer to write off the car. As an example, if a car has a market value of R150 000 and the cost of repairs accounts for two-thirds of that, it might not be worth fixing. However, if a R900 000 luxury SUV incurs repair costs of R140 000, the situation is very different. He points to a Ford Focus in his workshop with front-end damage. When I peer inside, I notice that both front airbags have deployed and the windscreen is broken on the passenger side. “We’ve quoted R100 000 to fix this car,” he says, “and a big slice of that is attributable to the airbags. Against that, of course, the airbags probably protected the car’s occupants from serious injury.”

I was unable to locate any statistics on the efficacy of airbags in South Africa, although anecdotal evidence abounds. In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported three years ago that, “in frontal crashes, frontal airbags reduce driver fatalities by 29 percent and fatalities of front-seat passengers aged 13 and older by 30 percent”. Significantly, the report noted that the fatality reduction in frontal crashes was larger for drivers wearing seat belts (52 percent) than for unbelted drivers (21 percent).

Behind the scenes

As Car magazine explains, engineers face the problem of getting the balance right between the airbags deploying too easily and not deploying at all, even in a severe accident. In order to minimise unnecessary deployments, Car says, tests are done using non-critical events such as operation on rough roads and curb hits. Car says Ford, for example, tests its airbags by subjecting them to door slams, ball strikes, shopping-trolley hits and bicycle accidents.

That the airbag system is not perfect (and probably never will be) was demonstrated as recently as February, when Mazda South Africa published large newspaper advertisements recalling Mazda6 and Mazda RX-8 models with “possible faulty airbags”, warning that they might not deploy.

Last year, the Japanese airbag manufacturer Takata admitted that its airbags were defective and had caused at least six deaths and more than 100 injuries. Millions of Toyota, Nissan and Honda cars have been recalled around the world, including South Africa. Tests revealed that steel inflators containing the propellant could burst and scatter potentially deadly shrapnel in the cabin.

Yet no one doubts that drivers are safer in the era of airbags than they were before. That says a lot. But if you missed the airbag recall announcements and think your vehicle might be affected, I would advise you to call your dealership as soon as possible, give them your vehicle’s VIN (you’ll find it on the licence document) and ask. Don’t worry if your vehicle is long out of warranty: they still have a duty to fix it.

* Alan Duggan is a freelance journalist and former editor of Popular Mechanics magazine.