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Airbag Safety Check: Fraud, Theft and Recycled Airbags

Your car’s airbag system is your first line of defense in a vehicle collision. Airbags save lives, but certain guidelines have to be observed for them to work effectively.

Below, we’ll take a look at how airbags work, and we’ll share general guidelines you can follow to make sure they perform as advertised for both adults and kids. We’ll also let you know how to tell if your vehicle has been affected by the current Takata airbag recall.

Finally, you’ll learn about these airbag-related issues, which put too many lives at risk:

Stolen Airbags
Airbag Frauds and Scams
Fake Airbags
Recycled Airbags

Free CARFAX Airbag Check

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How Do Airbags Work?

Along with your car’s seat belts, airbag systems are designed to buffer passenger impact during collisions. If the vehicle suffers a moderate to severe crash, a signal is sent from the system’s electronic control unit to the airbag inflators. This causes the airbags to deploy. Airbags can be used to protect against both frontal and side-impact collisions.

There are a couple of things you can do to help your car’s airbags deliver safe performance:

  • Make sure the driver is seated at least 10 inches from the steering wheel. Airbags can cause injury if you’re sitting too close to them as they’re being deployed. Frontal airbags are located in an airbag compartment that’s nestled in the car’s steering wheel. While in the driver’s seat, measure the distance between your breastbone and the steering wheel. If it’s less than 10 inches, adjust the seat to expand the distance, while making sure you’re still able to easily reach the car’s pedals.
  • If your car’s steering wheel is adjustable, tilt it downward so it’s aimed at your chest, not your head and neck. If possible, tilt your car’s steering wheel downward. This helps ensure that the airbags deploy in the region of your chest, instead of inflating into your delicate head and neck area.

passenger side airbag

Airbags and Child Passenger Safety

Due to their small stature, children are especially vulnerable to injury caused by airbag deployment. They should never travel in the front seat, since they can be killed by the force exerted by airbags as they’re being deployed.

Children should always be placed in the rear seat, but the exact seating arrangements will depend on the child’s age and height:

  • From birth to two years old, kids should be placed in a rear-facing child safety seat.
  • Once children outgrow the rear-facing car seat, they should be placed in a forward-facing car seat until at least the age of five.
  • After outgrowing the forward-facing child safety seat, kids should be placed in a booster seat until they’re about 4 feet 9 inches tall.
  • Once they’ve reached 4 feet 9 inches in height, kids should use the rear seat’s lap and shoulder belts for maximum protection.

Stolen Airbags, Fraud, Scams and the Dangers of Fake Airbags

To work effectively, airbags need to be replaced each time they’ve been deployed. They may also need to be replaced if the car has been in a flood, since water damage can prevent airbags from working properly.

Airbag fraud can happen when you buy a used car. The car you’re buying may have airbags that have been previously deployed or damaged in a flood.

Scams have also taken place at auto shops during vehicle repair following an accident during which the car’s airbags have been deployed. Some dishonest shops will pocket the full price of a new airbag from the insurance company and install either a cheap black-market knockoff or no airbag at all.

There are steps you can take to avoid becoming a victim.

When buying a used car:

  • Know the Vehicle’s History. Use the free airbag check at the top of this page to see if an airbag deployment has been reported. A CARFAX Vehicle History Report can also tell you if the car’s airbags have ever been deployed, or if it’s suffered flood damage.
  • Get a pre-purchase vehicle inspection. Even if the car has a clean Vehicle History Report, have the vehicle inspected by a skilled mechanic prior to purchase. If the Vehicle History Report indicates flood damage or airbag deployment, be sure to have the mechanic pay special attention to the airbags.

When getting your car repaired following an accident:

  • Ask the shop to let you inspect the airbag before it’s been installed. Check the airbag prior to installation, and make sure it’s in a sealed package from the manufacturer.
  • Take a look at the repair shop’s invoice to make sure the airbag was purchased directly from the manufacturer. This will help you make sure the airbag is new and sourced from the manufacturer, not the black market.

Protect Yourself From Airbag Theft

Stealing airbags can be a profitable business. Airbags can cost over $1,000, and their steep price had made them a target of thieves. They can be stolen from a parked car. They may also be stolen by dishonest mechanics when a car is taken to an auto shop for repair.

To avoid becoming a victim of airbag theft:

  • Park in a well-lit, visible location. A car parked in a well-lit place that’s visible to observers will be less attractive to thieves.
  • Consider installing an anti-theft device on the steering wheel. These devices discourage airbag theft.
  • Thoroughly vet the auto shop before taking in your car for repair. Check to see if complaints have been lodged against the shop with the Better Business Bureau or consumer protection agencies.

deployed airbags

Replacement Airbags: What You Need to Know

Some auto repair shops purchase airbags from automotive recyclers. These airbags are sourced from scrapped cars, and they’ve never been deployed. Recyclers assert that these airbags are acceptable for use, but to ensure safe performance, it’s best to stick with new airbags that have been made by the car’s manufacturer. The best place to source these airbags is from a new-car dealership.

The following signs may indicate that a car’s airbags have been replaced:

  • An airbag light that blinks or remains illuminated
  • Scratches, burn marks or discoloration on the steering wheel or dashboard

Takata Airbag Recall: Is Your Vehicle at Risk?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has recalled 50 million defective Takata airbags in the United States. This recall affects about 37 million trucks, SUVs and passenger cars. The recalled airbags could potentially explode when deployed, and this could cause serious injury or death.

Within this recall, certain airbags pose an especially high risk. These airbags are found in 2001-2003 Honda and Acura vehicles, 2006 Ford Rangers and 2006 Mazda B-Series trucks. If you own one of these vehicles, its airbags should be immediately replaced.

Use Carfax’s free Recall Check to see if your vehicle has been affected. If your vehicle is part of the Takata recall, notify your local dealer. The dealer will replace the defective airbags for free. Also, you can check a VIN and learn about how to decode a vehicle identification number.