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NHTSA warns about counterfeit airbags

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WASHINGTON?The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued a consumer advisory to vehicle owners and independent repair shops to beware of counterfeit airbags that have entered the U.S. automotive aftermarket.

Anyone who has had an airbag replaced in the last three years by a repair shop that is not part of a new-car dealership may be at risk, NHTSA warned. The agency urged motorists and independent repairers to use only certified original equipment airbags for replacements.

?While these airbags look nearly identical to certified original equipment parts?including bearing the insignia and branding of major auto makers?NHTSA testing showed consistent malfunctioning, ranging from non-deployment of the airbag to the expulsion of metal shrapnel during deployment,? NHTSA's advisory said.

To date NHTSA has uncovered no deaths or injuries related to the airbags, and the agency estimates that less than 0.1 percent of U.S. vehicles have the counterfeit airbags.

NHTSA provided a list of vehicles for which counterfeit airbags may be available, covering most major auto makers. Those car companies have established call centers, through which motorists may have their vehicles inspected at their own expense and have their airbags replaced if necessary.

The National Auto Dealers Association (NADA) said counterfeiters are to blame for the issue, yet consumers will be the ones bearing all costs for evaluation and replacement of faulty airbags. ?It's important to realize that this is not a typical recall,? a NADA spokesman said. ?The people who are at fault here are not the body shops, insurance companies, government officials or dealerships. The people at fault are the counterfeiters.... But the consumers are the ones who will have to bear the entire cost.?

To have a vehicle evaluated for a faulty airbag will cost consumers about $100; to have the center steering wheel airbag replaced will alone cost from $750 to $1,000, NADA said.

Some vehicles contain up to eight airbags, and the steering wheel is the least expensive one to replace, the spokesman said.

Bruce Anderson, president of the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association, said the association has been trying to get the word out to the more than 300 franchised, new-car dealers and independent, used-car stores it represents. He said people who unknowingly had counterfeit bags installed via an insurance claim should still be covered.

For some, airbag replacement could end up being a ?major expense,? Mr. Anderson said. ?When a car owner has an insurance claim, I think it's reasonable to expect that they'll get OEM replacement parts.?

He warned consumers that if a deal is too good to be true, it probably is, and they may be dealing with a counterfeit part. He said those concerned about whether they could have a counterfeit airbag can seek help. Service technicians at new-car dealerships across the country have factory-trained personnel who can identify phony airbags, he said.

?They're going to know, and they're going to know right now whether or not these are counterfeit parts,? he said. ?That's an excellent source to go find out if you've got any questions if you're driving a vehicle that just had a deployed airbag, or if it's on a salvaged title or anything on that grid that NHTSA is pushing.?

Phil Maguire, co-owner of the Maguire Family of Dealerships in Ithaca and Trumansburg, N.Y., recommends consumers pull a history report on their vehicle to see whether it was in an accident. If so, they should try to get documentation from the place the vehicle was repaired to find out where the airbag came from.

The Maguires own 15 new- and used-car dealerships. They have three body shops that get all their parts directly from the auto manufacturers.

?It's more of an awareness issue and an education issue to consumers and to dealers who are purchasing used cars now. It's definitely going to be an impact for the car retailer that purchases pre-owned vehicles or takes pre-owned trades,? Mr. Maguire said. ?It emphasizes that we have to do more research on the pedigree on the car. Things like Carfax and other vehicle reports are just becoming more of an everyday due diligence....?

Carfax, the vehicle history reporting company, said it would provide a free service to check for prior airbag deployments at www.carfax.com/airbag.

The Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association said although counterfeit auto parts represent a relatively small problem, occurrences support strong enforcement of U.S. anti-counterfeiting rules. Aaron Lowe, vice president of government affairs, said the group believes that ?both for protection of our members that are committed to providing their customers with high-quality, safe, replacement parts and, most of all, for the safety of the motoring public, it is critical that the government does everything possible to keep counterfeit parts from entering the U.S. market in the first place.?

Reporters with Detroit-based Automotive News, and Tire Business Senior Washington Reporter Miles Moore, contributed to this report.

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