NHTSA warns car owners of 'extreme safety risk' of phony air bags
By David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau
October 10, 2012 at 3:37 pm
Washington — Federal officials on Wednesday warned millions of car owners of the "extreme safety risk" of counterfeit air bags, saying there are "thousands" of fake safety devices in vehicles that were repaired after collisions.
At a press conference, National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland released a list of about 100 models that could have counterfeit air bags. He played a video of a crash test with a counterfeit bag that showed flames and shards of metal flying into a test dummy. A second video showed a air bag only partially inflating.
None of the nearly dozen counterfeit air bags tested by NHTSA worked as they were supposed to.
Vehicles that may have counterfeit replacement air bags include certain model years of the Ford Mustang, Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Cruze.
Tests conduced by NHTSA on Sept. 12 prompted alarm at the agency that prompted the "unusual step," Strickland said, saying the tests show that the phony air bags are an "extreme safety risk."
NHTSA said it believes the problem may impact less than 0.1 percent of the U.S. vehicle fleet. Only vehicles which have had an air bag replaced within the past three years by a repair shop that is not part of a new car dealership may be at risk. Government officials told industry officials that there may be 25,000 counterfeit air bags.
"We strongly encourage consumers that if you think you have a counterfeit air bag, that you need to get inspected — and if it is counterfeit, you need to get it replaced," Strickland said at a press conference at the agency's Washington headquarters.
John Morton, director of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the air bags are "shoddy fakes that pose a significant safety hazard when installed. These air bags don't work."
The agency has seized 2,500 counterfeit air bags this year, and thousands of phony air bag parts. "I expect further seizures and arrests in the coming future," Morton said.
He said owners that got very good deals on air bag replacements from independent shops should be concerned. "To save a few hundred dollars isn't worth it," Morton said.
The agency arrested a Chinese national in October 2010 in Tennessee. He is an owner of a company in Guangzhou that specializes in producing fake air bags and selling them over the Internet. The company bought manufacturer emblems from auto dealers in China for $15 and then sold fake airbags for $50 to $70. The man was sentenced this year to 37 months in prison.
Another man was arrested in North Carolina in August, and 1,600 fake air bags were seized.
But the issue will not be easy for the nation's dealers. An inspection will cost $100 or more and it's not always easy for dealers or automakers to spot fakes.
The National Automobile Dealers Association said in a notice to its members that "counterfeit bags typically appear very much like genuine parts and rarely trigger a trouble light or diagnostic code and are hard to detect without a full physical inspection."
An inspection — including removing the air bags — may cost a consumer $100 or more. Unlike a recall, it is not paid for by the automaker.
One big issue of concern is if customers opt not to pay for a new air bag, which could cost upward of $1,000.
"Instruct the customer that you cannot put the counterfeit part back into the vehicle or give them the part," NADA told its dealers. "Have them sign an acknowledgement indicating that they are refusing to pay to have the vehicle restored and that they recognize that the vehicle will not offer them the same protection as if it were restored. Do not attempt to hide the fact that the vehicle is missing an operational air bag (e.g., putting on a false cover and turning off the trouble light)."
Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents Detroit's Big Three automakers, emphasized that the issue will affect a very small number of owners.
Bergquist said "today's announcement by the government that some consumers may have counterfeit air bags installed in their vehicles highlights a growing problem. The proliferation of counterfeit auto replacement parts is a global concern because the lower quality of many copycat products poses potentially serious safety implications for drivers and occupants."
She said it is a tough question.
"Unfortunately, most consumers never see the parts going into their vehicles or know whether they are genuine OEM replacement parts. Many independent repair shops may have thought they were buying quality OEM parts, but instead received fake or rebuilt parts instead.Counterfeiting thrives when it is difficult to spot a fake," she said.
The Association of Global Automakers — the trade group representing major foreign companies — agreed it is an important issue.
"Counterfeit replacement air bags are a serious safety problem," said Mike Stanton, Global Automakers president and CEO. "We want to make sure vehicles on the road are as safe as possible. That is why we are fully cooperating with NHTSA to help get this message out. While NHTSA thinks this is limited to a small number of vehicles, it is important that consumers verify that their vehicles have original equipment replacement air bags."