Ah, the smells and sights of fall. Crisp leaves, pumpkin spice flavored everything, and … spiders. Spiders everywhere. This massive car recall from Toyota left out one important detail: SPIDERS.
“Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. … announced it will conduct a voluntary safety recall of approximately 803,000 2012-2013 vehicles… In the involved vehicles, water from the air conditioning condenser unit housing could leak onto the airbag control module and cause a short circuit … In some instances, the air bag(s) could become disabled or could inadvertently deploy.”
Cindy Knight, Toyota’s media contact for recalls, patiently let me pester her with spider questions this afternoon. It’s clear that an as-yet unnamed species of spider found some air conditioning drainage tubes to be an ideal place to spin a web. That makes sense to me, as a spider-watcher: It’s warm under a car, it’s dark, it’s damp — it’s the perfect spider habitat.
Those webs caused a drain blockage, and a resulting leak is blamed for shorts causing three airbag misfires and 35 warning light activations. Toyota preemptively issued a recall when the arachnid issue was discovered. Sadly, although understandably, Toyota seems more focused on fixing the electrical short than actually collecting and identifying the spider species responsible.
When I first started investigating this story, the general (and horrified) assumption people made was that the airbag exploded, spraying passengers with spiders. Like this illustration:
As awesome as that would be (in MY opinion, anyway), reality is far less interesting. It’s just a short caused by dripping water that makes the airbags misfire.
“Beverly Braga, Product Communications Specialist for Mazda, assured me that yes, there have been 26 confirmed cases in which the webs of yellow sac spider have caused problems by blocking the evaporative canister vent line of certain 2.5-liter four cylinder vehicles.”
Before you panic, Sac spiders normally occur in your garden and are relatively harmless, although they do have an irritating bite. (The term “sac spider” does NOT mean they spin webs in scrotums, which was the alarmed conclusion of one person I talked to. Some of ya’ll have really overly active imaginations.)
Sac Spiders spin tubular webs, an example of which you can see in the image at the top of this post. It’s kind of a sleeping bag affair, in which the spiders hide in the daytime. The web is fairly dense and somewhat water repellent, so it would probably function effectively as a plug in a small drain.
Sac spiders are tiny, usually not bigger than 6mm. They forage at night, so you can see why downward-facing drainage tubes in cars would make a nice daytime retreat for a hunting spider. They certainly are a likely candidate species for the Toyota spider saboteurs.
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Cars
Itchy yet? You probably have spiders in and around your car all the time. That’s part of living in a biological world. Spiders in cars are a problem primarily when the big apes driving the cars freak out. Just talking about spiders while driving increases driving errors in people who are phobic. There are plenty of accident reports related to spiders, but I have never found any that actually relate to harm from a spider bite.
It pains me to say it, but I know you won’t all learn to like spiders like I do, and that’s Ok. If you happen to find a spider in your car, go right ahead and scream. But do know that they are not going to hurt you, and stay focused on the road if possible. You don’t have to become a spider-lover; even entomologists can be arachnophobic. I recently found my entire head covered in thick cobwebs after cleaning behind my washing machine. The sound frequency I produced was probably last achieved by Little Richard hitting one of his high notes. Unexpected spiders startle even the most arachnophilic of us.
Practicing calm in the presence of spiders is a good goal. To help you find your Spider Zen, I’ll be celebrating Arachtober, a festival of fall spideryness started by Jenn Foreman Orth a few years ago.
The vast majority of spiders are your friends. They are valuable (and free!) pest control for your garden, home, and car. Unless there is something seriously wrong with your personal hygiene, spiders have no interest in living on you or in you. Share the Road … with spiders.
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