Here's one more reason to be careful about where you get a collision repair performed on your crashed car: If an airbag deployed and saved your life, you might not be so lucky the next time around.
Since 2009, authentic-looking but extremely dangerous counterfeit airbags from China have been illegally imported to the U.S., where they have been offered for sale online and might have been installed as replacement airbags by some unscrupulous collision repair shops, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
After a criminal investigation by several other federal government agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Intellectual Property Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, NHTSA issued a consumer safety advisory that warned both vehicle owners and repair professionals about the counterfeits and the dangers they pose.
Tests that NHTSA conducted on 11 counterfeit airbags produced an array of dangerous results, ranging from an airbag not deploying at all to an airbag exploding and shooting metal shrapnel and incendiary material into the vehicle's cabin during deployment. The explosion in particular led to the extraordinary warning by NHTSA, which does not normally test or regulate individual car parts.
"That's when [the situation] moved from an intellectual property rights prosecution to a severe safety advisory," NHTSA Administrator David Strickland told Edmunds.com.
Airbags are a supplemental restraint system (SRS), secondary to seatbelts, which provide the primary restraint system in a vehicle. It would have been bad enough if the counterfeit airbags didn't deploy properly, Strickland said. That's "clearly a dangerous situation and violative of the federal motor vehicle safety standards."
"There's a different situation, frankly, when the airbag explodes in your face and sends shards into your head," Strickland said.
In the advisory, NHTSA also said it was not able to determine exactly how many counterfeit replacement airbags had been brought into the U.S. already, but estimated that less than 0.1 percent of vehicles were affected nationwide. The agency said it was unaware of any deaths or injuries that were directly attributable to counterfeit airbags at the time. Eight days after the NHTSA advisory, authorized car dealership repair shops replaced only 100-110 suspected counterfeit airbags, noted Bailey Wood, a spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) in Washington, D.C.
Nonetheless, NHTSA's Strickland said, "We're likely going to be seeing an increase of counterfeit automobile parts" including counterfeit airbags, despite the Justice Department's prosecutions. That's because counterfeit airbags are a highly profitable underground business.
Car owners must remain cautious both in choosing a collision repair shop and in confirming the source of parts used in the repair, NHTSA warned. And used-car buyers should investigate a vehicle's repair historyand look for hints of an airbag problem. NHTSA's advisory also lists specific vehicle years, makes and models for which counterfeit airbags have been offered for sale.
Signs of Risk
In the NHTSA consumer safety advisory and a related dealer guidance document, NHTSA identified a number of factors that could indicate a counterfeit airbag was installed during a vehicle repair:
- The airbag was replaced within the past three years at a repair shop that is not part of a new-car dealership.
- The replacement airbag was purchased from eBay or another source not certified by the automaker.
- The cost of the replacement airbag was unusually low compared to the normal price of an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) airbag, which generally is $400-$500.
- The texture of the vinyl material used for the counterfeit airbag trim cover is different from the OEM's material.
- The color of the counterfeit airbag trim cover might be slightly different from the OEM parts.
- The vinyl trim cover may not have "tear seams" or slight depressions in the vinyl material that determine where the flap doors will open during deployment (typically an H-pattern).
- The letters "SRS," which are embossed or molded into the vinyl trim cover, are not well defined.
- There is evidence that the installer of the counterfeit airbag shaved or trimmed the vinyl trim cover for a better fit in the steering wheel housing.
- The airbag warning light, which can be found in the instrument cluster, does not illuminate when the ignition key is switched on or otherwise does not function as the automaker intended.
NHTSA gave this advice to used-car buyers:
- Investigate the vehicle's history to learn whether it was ever involved in a crash that may have caused an airbag to deploy.
- Be wary if the used car's title is branded salvage, rebuilt or reconstructed.
Buyers can get a vehicle history report showing collision repair information from a provider such as AutoCheck or Carfax. Another important source of information is the Justice Department's National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS), which is available through several different data providers. The federal title information system sometimes contains the first available instance of junkyard disposal, salvage auction and insurance company total loss data, although this information is also available from a state Department of Motor Vehicles as a branded junk title, salvage title or rebuilt title.
Evidence of a Problem
The only way to confirm that a replacement airbag is authentic is to look at it directly. Genuine OEM airbags are labeled with serial numbers, OEM part numbers, barcode labels and warning labels. They also have wires wrapped in unique colors. Any of these may be missing or erroneous on a counterfeit airbag, according to NHTSA's dealer guidance document. Moreover, NHTSA says, there may be other telltale flaws with a counterfeit airbag, including tool marks, grind marks and rivets that appear to be tightened by hand rather than by a machine, as OEM rivets are.
Of course, consumers can't see all this, and it can be expensive to have a car dealer's repair shop (or an automaker-authorized independent repair shop) examine an airbag after it was installed. The average labor cost for having a dealer's shop inspect a steering-wheel-mounted airbag ranges from $100-$200. Passenger-side airbag inspections are more labor-intensive and therefore even more expensive, according to NADA's Wood.
But if you suspect that your vehicle may contain a counterfeit airbag, there is an exam you can perform yourself before taking it to a trusted shop for a professional inspection.
A CarMD device, which sells for about $120, connects to the onboard diagnostics port (OBD-II) built into every car, truck, minivan and SUV since 1996. It communicates with the vehicle's various computer systems, including the airbag control unit that triggers the deployment of airbags.
The device can determine whether the airbag control unit has been removed, altered or is not functional. And if it detects a problem, a car owner can find the average cost of the repair in the user's specific locale on the CarMD Web site or from an agent at the company's phone-in help center. Nationwide and across car brands and models, the average cost to replace an airbag control unit and its impact sensor is nearly $555, including parts and labor, said Art Jacobsen, vice president of CarMD Corp. in Irvine, California. The cost of the airbag itself can add another $400-$500, he said.
The CarMD device's detection capabilities are limited by the technology in the vehicle and it won't work with all airbag-equipped cars. Only advanced "intelligent" airbag systems — which use special circuitry in the airbag module itself — are able to tell the CarMD device if the airbag is missing or inauthentic, Jacobsen said. Also, cars built before 1996 may have airbags, but they won't have an OBD-II port for the CarMD to use.
Getting a Proper Fix
NHTSA recommended in its advisory that consumers have only authorized new-car dealership shops look for and replace deployed airbags, but other auto experts disagreed.
The advisory was "real quick to absolve dealerships of any potential for malfeasance," said Michael Calkins, manager of approved auto repair at the American Automobile Association (AAA) in Heathrow, Florida. "I think they're on the right path, but I'm not sure that 100 percent of dealers are 100 percent not at fault," Calkins said.
Although the only source of genuine OEM car parts, including airbags, is a new-car dealership's parts department, dishonest dealership shops could cut corners in repairing older out-of-warranty vehicles, he said. Similarly, there are qualified, honest independent collision repair shops that won't deal in bogus airbags, Calkins and other auto experts asserted. (Some shops use undeployed recycled OEM airbags in their repairs. There's controversy about this practice as well.)
AAA maintains a list of nearly 8,000 approved auto-repair shops across North America, including mechanical, auto body and auto glass shops. Each undergoes on-site inspections, financial and insurance background checks and detailed customer surveys in a process that takes four to six weeks, Calkins said. The site visits are performed at least four times per year, he said. People can find the list through local AAA club Web sites.
State-specific collision repair shop associations are another good source of information about reputable collision repair shops, according to Erica Eversman, founder of the Automotive Education and Policy Institute (AEPI), a nonprofit organization based in Akron, Ohio, that aims to inform both consumers and auto repair professionals. The AEPI maintains a list of these associations on its Web site.
It is possible that an insurance company would cover the costs of discovering and replacing a counterfeit airbag if it were installed as part of a repair job warrantied by the insurer, NHTSA's Strickland said.
But in all likelihood it will be the victim who picks up these costs, Strickland warned. The counterfeit airbags are not the subject of a mandated recall and they are not covered under any automaker's warranty.