Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/FIle
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton, right, accompanied by NHTSA Administrator David Strickland, speak during a news conference at the Transportation Department in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, to provide consumer safety information regarding counterfeit airbags and what federal officials are doing to address the issue.

Counterfeit airbags pose major safety risk. How to protect yourself.

Drivers who have had their airbags replaced in the last three years are at risk of having had counterfeit airbags installed. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a list of vehicles that may be affected. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a consumer safety advisory this week, warning of the “extreme safety risk” posed by counterfeit airbags.

These phony airbags look nearly identical to certified, original equipment parts, the agency said. They even have the insignia and branding of major automakers.  But during NHTSA testing, the counterfeit airbags consistently malfunctioned, with results ranging from a failure to deploy to shooting flames and propelling metal shrapnel into the test dummy.

The agency says that 0.1 percent of the vehicles on U.S. roads, some 250,000 vehicles, are makes and models for which fake airbags are available. An Associated Press (AP) story reports that NHTSA had been briefed by auto industry officials who said that tens of thousands of car owners may be driving vehicles with counterfeit airbags.

About 1.5 million airbags are deployed each year in police-reported tow-away crashes. While the NHTSA said that it is not aware of any deaths or injuries related to the issue of counterfeit airbags, police accident investigators might not be able to determine if an airbag was fake or genuine.

Based on what is currently known, the NHTSA and its partners have determined that the counterfeit airbags were manufactured in Mainland China.

Who’s most at risk

Most at risk are motorists who have had an airbag replaced following a crash during the past three years and the work was done at a repair shop that was not part of a new car dealership, or they purchased replacement airbags online.

Other at-risk car owners are those who purchased a used car that may have sustained an airbag deployment before the purchase, those who bought a car with a title branded salvage, rebuilt or reconstructed

What at-risk consumers should do

Consumers who fall into the most at-risk category should have their vehicles inspected at their own expense and the airbags replaced, if necessary.

  • Check the list of vehicles for which counterfeit airbags may be available here.
  • Contact the auto manufacturer call center for your vehicle to find out if your vehicle model is among the ones for which counterfeit airbags are known to be available. Click here for the automaker call center contact information.
  • If you do not know the history of your vehicle, you may be able to obtain a vehicle history from Carfax.
  • Regarding the cost of inspection and replacement, if you have concerns about an airbag that was replaced at a repair shop your insurance company recommended, contact your insurance company.
  • If you purchased replacement airbags through eBay, you may be covered for the expense by their “Buyer Protection” policy.  
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