Is that Airbag an Original? Feds Warn Car Owners to Be Wary

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D. Gilson is a writer and author of essays, poetry, and scholarship that explore the relationship between popular culture, literature, sexuality, and memoir. His latest book is Jesus Freak, with Will Stockton, part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series. His other books include I Will Say This Exactly One Time and Crush. His first chapbook...

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UPDATED: Mar 13, 2020

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With automobile crashes remaining one of the top causes of death worldwide, manufacturing, distributing and installing faulty airbags is equal to creating a fake vaccine for tuberculosis. And yet it’s true, according to government officials, for three years running, counterfeit airbags have been discovered in nearly every brand of automobile.

In tests conducted by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), these fake airbags were shown either to not deploy at all or explode, shooting metal scraps at the unfortunate crash test dummies in their path.

Although an investigation by the NHTSA is still underway, the culprits are still at large and there are no known injuries or deaths reported from the bad bags, but the threat is real even though the percentage of installation has been estimated at only 0.1% of all cars. Just like many other product “fakes,” the NHTSA and its partners have concluded that the counterfeit airbags they discovered were manufactured in China.

Who’s at risk? Anyone who either bought a used car without first checking the car’s history for major accidents or those who have had their car repaired by a non-manufacturer service shop. You are also at risk if you’ve purchased airbags over the Internet. The unfortunate reality is that it’s really impossible to know if your car has fake airbags without spending around $100 to $200 to have it checked out.

Additionally, since this is not recall, the cost to replace and repair the airbags must come directly out of the consumer’s pocket. A. Bailey Wood Jr. from the National Automobile Dealers Association says that the cost of the steering wheel airbag can be as high as $700 to $1,000 and in some cars, up to $3,000 with labor included.

The list of cars for which the NHTSA has discovered associated counterfeit products is extensive. Most model years are from the early to mid 2000’s, but one standout on the list is a 1992 Nissan Quest. It’s all the more unusual because airbags were not mandatory on cars until 1998. If you discover your car on the list, there’s a full list of call centers associated with each manufacturer available at www.SaferCar.gov.

So, could you be sitting on a time bomb? There are some recommended courses of action if you suspect you’ve been scammed with a fake safety device.

Call the auto manufacturer
First, federal officials have set up call centers with toll-free telephone numbers for each manufacturer, but these are really just the service numbers that represent each of the different brands involved. Training has been given to each of the manufacturers to help you deal with the issue at hand, but the degree of satisfaction you get will vary.

Get a history record of your car
If you don’t have full knowledge of your vehicle history, get information using Carfax which can provide some helpful details or contact your local new car dealer to have your vehicle inspected at your own expense and your air bag replaced if necessary.

Get in touch with your insurance provider
If you are concerned and have an air bag that was replaced at a repair shop recommended by your insurance company we recommend that you contact your insurance company.

Get online support
If you purchased a counterfeit air bag from eBay it may be covered by that company’s “Buyer Protection” program. Contact eBay’s Customer Support center accessible on www.eBay.com.

Rat out the repair shop
You may also wish to contact your local consumer protection agency or the appropriate State Office of the Attorney General to determine your rights under the law. Also, consider contacting the Better Business Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission to file a complaint.

Even though there’s a cost associated with the discovery process, consumers are urged to take action. “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.”

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