The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently issued a warning to buyers of used cars to beware of airbag fraud. The agency reported that in approximately half of all fatal auto accidents in which the vehicle’s airbags failed to deploy, the airbags were either defective or missing altogether.
As far back as 2002, the Automotive Occupant Restraints Council issued warnings to consumers to be on guard against airbag fraud. The organization cited instances in which deployed airbags were replaced with faulty components or other materials, including rags, towels, packing peanuts, old shoes and virtually any materials that simulate the presence of functioning airbags.
The cost of replacing deployed airbags and damaged sensors can be in the thousands of dollars, and some unscrupulous car owners, repair shops and used car dealerships are perpetrating airbag fraud on unsuspecting buyers with deadly results. Some industry experts have stated that as many as 1 in 25 previously damaged, used cars they inspected had nonfunctioning airbags. There have been reports of airbag warning lights being disconnected and bulbs being removed. When connected, these warning lights illuminate upon deployment and remain illuminated until replacement bags have been properly installed.
The only way to positively determine whether a used vehicle’s airbags are in good operating condition is to have them inspected by an ASE-certified airbag mechanic. Short of this, however, there are a number of things consumers can to protect themselves from airbag fraud.
Check to see if the trim color over the steering wheel and dashboard airbags is consistent with the color of the surrounding areas. If not, there’s a good chance that the original airbag has been replaced.
When you turn on the vehicles ignition, check to make sure that the airbag indicator light comes on temporarily. If the indicator flashes or remains on, this may indicate a problem with the airbag system.
If the airbag light does not illuminate at all the previous or current owner may have had a disable switch installed. If this is the case, the owner or dealer should be able to provide you with a copy of the letter issued by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Association letter authorizing the switch. You should also request that the airbag be enabled before purchasing the vehicle. If the dealer or owner cannot produce this letter or simply tries to gloss over the issue there’s a good chance that the indicator bulb has been removed.
Finally, it’s always a good idea to request a Carfax Vehicle History Report before buying any used vehicle. More and more independent sellers and used car dealerships are offering these reliable reports, but if one is not available for a specific car or truck you’re interested in you may obtain one by visiting the Carfax website. These reports are very affordable and the company offers a variety of pricing options for single and multiple vehicle reports. Check the report for any and all accident reports, and remember that even un-deployed airbags can be damaged in a crash.