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Shell out for a scanner or get diagnostic report

Question - My wife and I both have VWs. I am a do-it-yourselfer, and my car is a '93 VW Passat. The entire engine management system is the Bosch KE-Motronic (35 pin) with an ODB scanner port. Does anybody make a scanner for us weekend warriors? I have found a couple of sources for professional tools on the Internet, but I'm not prepared to spend $1,400-$3,600 for an all-in-one Bosch-type scanner. - Bob

TOM: Ah, yes, the old "Mo-tronic" engine management system. VW opted for the Motronic because Peugeot and Renault had already claimed the Curly-tronic and the Larry-tronic.

RAY: Actually, there is no good, cheap scanner for this car that we know of, Bob. If you're going to invest in a scanner, I'd recommend getting one from Snap On or OTC that works for all cars - and uses an adapter for your car. That way, at least you may be able to talk your neighbors into letting you scan their cars on the weekends and keep yourself busy that way.

TOM: But a real scanner is going to cost you $1,500 to $2,000, plus hundreds of bucks a year if you want to keep it up to date on the newest cars.

RAY: So I'd recommend instead that you simply take your car to a garage and have them scan it for you and print out the report. Then you can take the diagnostic report, go home and do the repairs yourself. I know that's not nearly as much fun, but maybe as a consolation prize, your wife will let you spend a couple of hundred bucks and order those "build a jet aircraft engine out of kitchen utensils" plans that you've always wanted. Good luck, Bob.

Question - I have a 1989 Buick Century. Recently, the left directional flasher went out (i.e. stopped flashing). The local service-station mechanic didn't have a clue. He said about an hour's labor plus parts. I took it to another station and was told anywhere from $3 to $125. Then I called two Buick dealers and they couldn't give me a firm estimate either. What would be a fair amount to pay to fix this problem? No one can tell me. - Jerry

RAY: In many cases, Jerry, this problem is caused by a burned-out bulb in one of your directional lamps.

TOM: The flasher is affected by resistance. And if one of the bulbs burns out, the resistance changes. Then the flasher either flashes very rapidly or stops flashing to let you know a bulb is out. So by turning on the blinkers, and comparing the right side, which is working, to the left side (look carefully, because each lamp contains several bulbs), you should be able to tell if you're down a bulb.

RAY: And if that's the case, you have a $3 fix.

TOM: If it's not the bulb, then it probably is the flasher (occasionally, we do see a flasher that works on one side but not the other). The flasher is a round, ice-cube-sized relay that plugs in under the dashboard. And you can find it by listening for it. Lie on your back on the driver's-side floor with a flashlight, turn on the blinker to the side that works, and listen for the little box that's clicking.

RAY: When you find it, pull it out, bring it to your local auto-parts store, and say, "Give me one of these."

TOM: Then plug the new one back in, and you'll be all set. By the way, that's also a $3 fix.

RAY: If it still doesn't work, then you have a problem with your wiring or with the directional switch. And that's the $125 (or more) solution. Good luck, Jerry.

Question - I keep reading that air bags are dangerous and are responsible for a number of deaths, especially in children and short people. Since, of course, air bags are supposed to be used together with seat belts, I wonder if any or all of the reported air-bag deaths have involved failure to use seat belts. - Marvin

RAY: Most of them have, Marvin. NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) keeps tabs on all crash-related fatalities in the United States. And clearly, MOST of the people who have been injured or killed by air bags were not wearing their seat belts.

TOM: Since 1990, there have been 45 children whose deaths were attributed to the deployment of an air bag in a car crash. Of those, only five were properly restrained at the time. And of those five, two were so small that they should have been in child seats (instead of in lap belts and shoulder harnesses).

RAY: For adults, the numbers, while not quite as striking, lead to the same conclusion. There were 37 adults killed by air bags since 1990. Twenty-six of them were either not wearing their seat belts or not wearing them properly.

TOM: But that still leaves 11 people who were properly belted, and yet were killed by a so-called safety device. So clearly, the transition to the "second generation" air bags that inflate with less force, and eventually, the "smart air bags" that sense how much force is needed, should be carried out as quickly as possible.

RAY: In the meantime, it's important to remember that air bags have saved many, many more lives than they have taken. NHTSA estimates that more than 2,500 would have died in crashes, had it not been for their air bags.

TOM: So the best way to decrease your chances of getting killed or injured in a car crash is still to take the following precautions.

RAY: 1. Always wear your seat belt.

TOM: 2. Always put kids in the back seat, which is inherently a safer place than the front seat (and make sure small kids are strapped securely in a child seat).

RAY: 3. And never drive like a knucklehead (too fast, after drinking, or while eating, talking on the phone, applying makeup or tying your shoelaces).