Some of the replacement airbags being used to repair cars are turning out to be salvaged, stolen, or even fake. Stolen or salvaged airbags are believed to be far more common than fakes, which may be detected only after they fail to deploy in a crash. At least one death has been linked to a fake airbag.
This problem doesn't appear to be widespread yet, but it may be growing. Federal law doesn't require airbag replacement in vehicles that are repaired after crashes. It's up to states whether to require replacement, and some states leave it up to consumers.
"But consumers cannot easily recognize a salvaged or stolen bag once it's installed in a vehicle," says Adrian Lund, the Institute's chief operating officer. "A salvaged or stolen bag may not deploy as designed, potentially reducing its effectiveness."
Airbags are essential to the restraint systems in modern cars. Safety belt design has evolved around airbags, with many cars now equipped with belts that include force limiters. These are intended to reduce forces on the chest of an occupant during a crash, and they accomplish this by allowing more forward movement of an occupant's upper body in a crash than would occur with an older belt design. The airbag prevents the forward moving occupant's head or face from striking the steering wheel or dashboard. If the airbag isn't fully functional, restraint system protection will be reduced.
These are question marks. Most of the time a properly handled and installed one that matches a car's make and model should work. However, airbags that have gotten wet may not deploy correctly.
"Getting wet isn't uncommon. Large numbers of cars are salvaged in this country due to flood damage," Lund points out. After recent flooding in Houston, for example, more than 95,000 cars were totaled. Hurricanes that hit the east coast in 1996 totaled almost 50,000 cars.
Airbag Testing Technologies, a New York-based company that tests and recertifies salvaged airbags, claims its recertified bags perform to the same specifications as new bags. The company says it can test for flood damage and eliminate damaged airbags, having worked closely with the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) to research the safety of salvaged bags.
ICBC encourages the use of salvaged airbags in vehicle repairs. This is different from the United States, where U.S. insurers specify the use only of new original-equipment airbags for repair purposes. ICBC can take the different approach as a way of reducing costs because it can identify flood bags. As the sole provider of insurance in British Columbia, the company's monopoly allows it to control the entire chain of supply from wrecked car to salvaged parts. This means ICBC can reliably eliminate questionable salvaged airbags from the system and prevent them from being installed in repaired vehicles.
To make sure this happens, ICBC created a four-hour training course for salvage employees, instructing them on how to remove, handle, and store salvaged airbags. Only recyclers certified by this training are authorized to resell airbags from salvaged cars. Because the wrecked cars supplied to the recyclers come from ICBC customers, the insurer can flag and eliminate parts from flood- or fire-damaged cars. This keeps suspect airbags out of the supply chain.
Another concern with the use of salvaged airbag modules is that it could encourage theft. Thieves steal airbags only to sell to repair shops. Approximately 7,500 airbags were reported stolen in 2001, according to State Farm estimates. This represents an increase compared with the previous year but fewer than the approximately 10,000 airbags that were stolen in 1999.
Last August police in south Florida began cracking down on repair shops that buy stolen airbags. Police in and around Miami found four shops that each possessed 15 to 45 stolen airbags. Airbag Testing Technologies hopes to address this issue with tamperproof labeling of recertified bags.
A recent rise in the number of fake airbags being discovered has alarmed the Automotive Occupant Restraint Council. Unlike a salvaged or stolen airbag, a fake contains no propellant charge and won't function at all.
California is one of the few states where fake airbags are outlawed, but a specialty shop in Long Beach that inspects cars with suspected airbag problems has found more than 60 fakes. In January a California insurer testified before a state legislative committee that the company had received more than 350 claims involving cars that had been in collisions and subsequently found to have fake bags.
In some cases involving fakes, the existing airbag cover has been repaired. In other cases replacement covers, easily available on the internet, were used.
Investigators of a fatal crash in California discovered empty packs of cigarettes and other garbage in place of the airbag in a salvaged Ford Escort. The car had been repaired by someone who salvages cars as a second job. The salvager said he was proud of his work and unaware that repacking an airbag was illegal in California. In many states it's not.
Few state laws address the problem
California outlaws fake airbags, but only Utah requires a deployed airbag to be repaired to its original operating condition. The District of Columbia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia require working airbags to pass safety inspections. Other states have attempted to address this issue, but virtually no comprehensive laws have been enacted. For example, Wisconsin prohibits the installation of a previously deployed airbag and the removal of an operational airbag. However, there's no restriction on installing fake, salvaged, or inoperable airbags or substituting other objects in lieu of airbags.
"Without a requirement for functional airbags that's enforced, people in most states are left to fend for themselves when it comes to ensuring the integrity of their cars' restraint systems," Lund says.
The high cost of factory replacement airbags creates an opportunity for an unscrupulous repair shop to replace an airbag with a cheaper black market one but still charge for a new one. The thief and the repair shop split the proceeds, while the customer gets an airbag that might or might not be designed for the repaired vehicle.
Due to running vehicle design changes, a replacement airbag must match up with not just the make, model, and year of the vehicle in which it's being installed but sometimes even the month the vehicle was manufactured. Without the vehicle identification number and airbag serial number, a mechanic cannot be sure a replacement airbag will operate as designed.
There are worse cases than a stolen airbag — cases of airbags being refolded and repacked without an inflator or the modules being stuffed with shop rags or even trash. The California Highway Patrol has reported at least one death in a crash involving a car with a fake airbag. A nonfunctional bag made up of parts from several salvaged bags has been blamed in the death of a driver in Canada.
For protection when having a car repaired or buying a used car, check the airbag indicator light that comes on when the ignition is turned on. It should blink for a few seconds and then go out as the car's electronics test the system. If the light fails to come on or if it stays on, the airbag may be nonfunctional or fake. Take the car to a dealer to find out for sure.