“Occasionally you read about air bags not working, and the automobile industry has found this to be a major issue because when people sit in their new car now, they expect it to be safe in the event of an accident,” state Senator Jerry Fielding, R-Sylacauga, told Ryan Phillips, reporting for the Aniston Star.
Fielding was the Senate sponsor of a bill passed by the Legislature earlier this year that ups the penalty for shops who knowingly install faulty or fake airbags in cars during repairs. Installing a fake airbag is already a misdemeanor, but Fielding’s bill would make it a felony if someone is injured as a result.
State Representative Randy Wood, R-Anniston, who also owns an automotive repair shop in Anniston, AL, sponsored the House version of the bill, which failed when brought to a vote.
“At my shop, we have never had a counterfeit airbag brought in, but then again I have always bought brand new factory equipment,” he said. “Just like if the part is a Honda, then you buy it from Honda. If it is a Ford, you buy it from Ford. I honestly did not know about this issue until I researched it and found that people were installing fraudulent airbags.”
Airbags saved the lives of approximately 26,000 people between 1987 and 2008, according to the National Traffic and Highway Safety Administration. But as shop owners know, not all collisions cause an airbag deployment, notes Gary Austin, owner of Austin’s Body Shop in Oxford, AL. After 35 years of automotive repair, Austin said that he has never seen a counterfeit or fake airbag in a vehicle brought into his shop.
“I’ve had cars come in that wrecked, and the airbag didn’t go off, so naturally people ask why that happened,” he said.
Austin then said that if an accident occurs where a vehicle is hit from an angle, as opposed to a head-on collision, the airbags will not deploy to protect the passengers.
Fatalities caused by counterfeit and faulty airbags make up a sizeable portion of auto-related deaths according to Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center of Auto Safety in Washington D.C. Ditlow said the issue does require regulation, but the people who commit airbag fraud have been hard to catch.
“When you get to the issue of a counterfeit airbag, it will not be detected that it was a counterfeit,” Ditlow said. “The police investigating will not go to the trouble of investigating who made it, so unless you catch this fraud at the point of import, you probably will not catch the fraud before the crash when it is too hard to detect.”
Fielding said that the inspiration for the bill came from one Alabama auto manufacturer in his district.
“The legal counsel for Honda came back to my office early in the session and said the industry was interested in promoting a bill to improve an existing bill relative to airbag fraud,” Fielding said. “There were a significant number of folks around the country that were being hurt by fraudulent airbags that were being repaired instead of being replaced with genuine airbags.”
Samantha Corona, a corporate affairs and communications spokesperson for Honda Manufacturing of Alabama, said the company didn’t have data on the prevalence of injuries related to fake airbags. Even so, she said, fake airbags are a silent danger to drivers.
“We don’t have any overall numbers of how many people are impacted by this, we just know it is a problem,” she said. “It is a safety issue. Counterfeit airbags pose a great risk, and it is about ensuring that drivers are getting the airbags they need. This impacts all manufacturers.”
Fielding said that the problem results from mechanics purchasing cheaper airbag imports from China for around $25 each, while American-made parts may cost repair shops $500 to $750 each.
“There was one case in California where a young individual bought a used pickup truck and was involved in a serious crash where the airbag should have deployed, but the vehicle had been in a prior crash and the shop did not replace it,” he said. “So the lack of an airbag resulted in the death of a young boy.”
Ditlow said the problem is due in part to a river of imports coming in from abroad.
“One type of fraud occurs when repair shops may charge for it and only put newspaper or something in place of the airbag,” he said. “The other type of fraud occurs when they will put a counterfeit bag in the vehicle that was made abroad that is listed as original equipment.”
According to Fielding, blame should rest solely on the individual who installed the system.
“It goes back to the repair shop,” he said. “They should be liable and should be the one that gets charged—it goes back to whoever had knowledge that it was a fake.”