This nightmare scenario has led to the widely-reported announcement from BMW that it is recalling almost three million of its 8, 7 and 5-series cars, plus some old-model 3-series vehicles, including some 205,000 in the UK, in order to fit a new radiator cap. The recall is the biggest yet seen in Europe.
But the revelation follows the recall of more than 100,000 cars by various motor manufacturers for airbags going off when they shouldn't, or not deploying when they should.
One such incident of a bag exploding in a driver's face prompted Chrysler Jeep Imports to recall nearly 600 Neons thought to be at risk. New bag control modules were fitted free of charge. Between them, Audi, Citroen, Ford, Land Rover, Renault and Skoda have recently called in over 100,000 cars as a precaution
Recalls are far more common than is generally thought. Audi UK recalled over 50,000 cars - 80s, A4s, A6s and A8s - to have an additional earthing wire attached to the steering wheel. Without it, there was a remote risk that static electricity could trigger the airbag as you stepped inside.
In June, Ford recalled over 27,000 cars - Escorts, Mondeos and Scorpios - after two passenger airbags had inflated spontaneously. "No-one was hurt," insists a Ford spokesperson, who emphasises that caution is the watchword when safety is at stake. Renault called in 14,000 Lagunas made last year for the same sort of attention.
Over 15,000 Discoverys and Range Rover Classics were affected by Land Rover's recall to fit a fuse that would prevent the airbag deploying accidentally. Skoda called in 12,000 Felicias to check that the airbag's wiring was not chafing. Even more Xsaras were recalled by Citroen to have their airbag/belt pre-tensioner control units inspected. Fractions of a second here are life-or-death critical.
In the year ending 30 June 1998, there were 107 voluntary safety recalls in the UK affecting trucks, buses, motorbikes and cars. Working to a code of practice established in 1979 by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), and the Vehicle Inspectorate , it is the responsibility of car makers and importers to inform owners of safety-related defects requiring attention.
The biggest recall before BMW's was for nearly 700,000 Rover Metros with potentially faulty fuel fillers that leaked petrol onto the rear tyre when cornering, reducing grip.
To check whether your car has been subject to a safety recall, write to the manufacturer, or contact either the consumer affairs department of the SMMT, Forbes House, Halkin St., London SW1X 7DS (0171 235 7000), or the Vehicle Inspectorate, Vehicle Safety Branch, Room 101, Berkeley House, Croydon St., Bristol BS5 ODA (0117 954 3300). Have at the ready details of the model, year, registration and chassis (or VIN) number
Whose Fault Is It?
Some safety recalls and their causes
Chrysler Jeep Cherokee, 1996: possible short circuit and risk of fire.
Fiat Punto, 1997: seatbelt tensioners may fail.
Ford Fiesta, 1995-96: faulty rear door latches and possible chafing of front brake hose.
Lexus LS4OO, 1995-97: possible under-bonnet fire.
Lotus Elise, 1996-98: rear suspension securing bolt may come loose.
Mazda Xedos 6, 1991-95: fracture of front suspension springs
Nissan Almera, 1997-98: seat belts may not lock.
Nissan Primera, 1996-97: vapour loss through faulty fuel tank valve.
Proton Persona, 1997: loss of brake servo assistance.
Toyota Carina E, 1993-96: possible stop lights failure.
Vauxhall Vectra, 1995-98: failure of handbrake cable.
Vauxhall Corsa, 1997-98: possible under-bonnet fire.
Volvo 944/945, 1995-97: loss of brake servo assistance.
VW Golf/Vento convertible, 1993-97: possible headlight failure.