Counterfeit air bags could malfunction, explode, regulators warn

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Federal safety regulators are warning that counterfeit air bags are being installed by auto repair shops that might not deploy in an accident or alternately, could explode, sending metal shrapnel into the vehicle’s passenger cabin.

“We want consumers to be immediately aware of this problem and to review our safety information to see if their vehicle could be in need of inspection,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The fake air bags look nearly identical to certified, original-equipment parts, right down to bearing the insignia and branding of major automakers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The problem affects almost every major auto brand.


The agency’s testing found that either they don’t work or malfunction dangerously.

“Air bags save several thousands of lives annually. But they can’t save lives if they have not been repaired properly,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “When an auto repairer installs a counterfeit airbag, consumers can be killed in a crash.”

About 1.5 million airbags are deployed in police-reported crashes where a car is towed, he said. California has at least 150,000 airbag deployments every year.

Only vehicles that have had an air bag replaced within the last three years at a repair shop that is not part of a new car dealership might be counterfeit, the agency said. That amounts to only a tiny fraction of the cars on the road, according to regulators.

The NHTSA and U.S. and foreign automakers have set up call centers with toll-free telephone numbers for each manufacturer that consumers can contact if they believe their vehicle might have been repaired with a fake air bag.

Additionally, owners of used cars who believe their vehicle might have been in accident in which the air bag deployed should also contact the respective call center for their vehicle’s brand.

This is not a recall, so the cost of inspecting and replacing air bags must be paid by the consumer.


“We expect all motor vehicle equipment to meet federal safety standards — and air bags in particular play a central role in keeping drivers and passengers safe in the event of a crash,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “That’s why it’s critical that vehicle owners work with their automotive dealers and repair professionals to ensure they use the appropriate, original-equipment parts in the event they need to replace their air bag.”

The NHTSA said it was working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Intellectual Property Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, “to better understand the issue of counterfeit air bags and how to prevent them from being purchased and installed in vehicles.”


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