Since airbags became mandatory in 1998, over 28,000 lives have been saved, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA). Statistics show that airbags reduce the risk of dying in a head-on collision by about 30 percent. Today airbags are essential for safety protection in car crashes, in conjunction with proper seat belt usage.
There are two main types of airbags: frontal and various forms of side airbags, though some of the newest cars have even six or eight airbags, for additional protection. But, what would you do if you found out that you didn’t have six or two or even one airbag to protect you in a car crash?
Such is the story of Sulaine Noble. Noble thought she’d found a perfect deal on a used Honda Accord. When she recently got in a minor fender-bender, she noticed that the car’s airbag light came on and stayed on. When she had it checked out, she was stunned to learn that her car was missing airbags.
Noble is now trying to find out who installed the dummy airbags in her car, but says that now she would, “never buy another car without using CARFAX to check on the title and the history of the car–it reveals a lot.”
But she is certainly not alone, nor has she suffered the more devastating consequences of this fraud. Laura Vega, from Houston, discovered too late that her Mercury Sable was missing both airbags when she was seriously injured and her mother killed in a head-on collision in 2003.
Shockingly enough airbag fraud is one of the most profitable and easiest ways for a scheming mechanic to pocket some hefty change. Sadly though, they rarely get caught, and are even more rarely are they punished. The California Highway Alliance (CHA) inspected previously damaged vehicles and discovered that 1 of 25 such vehicles had phony airbags systems, that were either non-functioning, outdated, or the wrong airbags for the make, model and year of the vehicle. CHA also found that 255 of 1,446 fatal accidents, the airbags had not been replaced after a previous crash, meaning they were most likely victims of fraud.
How Does it Happen?
Larry Gamache of CARFAX explains how this scam is pulled off. “Without some investigation it’s virtually impossible for the average consumer to tell just by looking at a used car if it has phony airbags,” he explains. “So after a car is in an accident, some unscrupulous repairers replace only the airbag cover and not the actual system beneath it.”
“Crooked mechanics are stuffing steering wheels and dashboards with everything from packing peanuts to empty beer cans,” Gamache continued.
“Replacement airbag systems may range from $1,000 to $3,000, maybe more if the dashboard shell or other dash components are damaged by the force of a passenger side deployment. Dishonest mechanics can generate a lot of money taking advantage of the unsuspecting consumer,” reveals Gamache.
Mechanics order replacement airbags, charge the customer and then return the airbag for a full refund and pocket the amount they charged the customer. Recently California made airbag fraud a felony punishable by a $5,000 fine, one year in prison, or both. Sadly, laws like this exist in only a handful of states, so it is up to you to protect yourself by knowing the signs of fraud.
How to Detect Airbag Fraud
Here are some recommended safety measures to help protect you and your family:
- Ask the seller to order a CARFAX Vehicle History Report, or order one yourself, it can reveal if a vehicle was issued a salvage title or has been reportedly involved in an accident. If there has been an accident reported, you want to check that working airbags are installed. Even if the airbag did not deploy, the airbag system may still have been affected by the crash.
- When you test-drive the vehicle, pay attention to the airbag indicator light. It should appear momentarily, and then go out. If the light remains on or flashes, there may be a problem with the airbag system. If the airbag indicator light never comes on, then the airbag is probably missing or had its bulb removed. Ask the seller if they had an on-off switch installed. If you face this situation, ask them for a copy of the NHTSA letter that authorized the switch, and have the airbag turned back on.
- Have the vehicle inspected by a trusted mechanic of your choice. Because it is so hard to tell, don’t take the seller’s word for it.
- Check the seat belts, if they retract slowly, or don’t retract at all, that’s a big warning sign that the air bags may have been deployed, and not replaced.
- Examine the area around the airbag compartment for little scratches or marks that could mean the airbag has deployed.