When you stop to think about it, it’s incredible: People are walking away from auto accidents that would’ve been fatal 10 years ago. Automotive manufacturers, concerned with the safety of vehicle occupants, are integrating safety systems into the cars and trucks that fill the streets of every town in America. These systems include occupant cage construction, stronger door beams, pyrotechnic seat belts, active head restraints and airbags. And the complexity of these safety systems is one reason the cost of repairing a collision-damaged vehicle has skyrocketed. Airbag system repair and replacement can add more than $3,000 to the repair of the car — which may total an otherwise repairable car. It’s no wonder there’s a large market for salvage airbags and fake airbag covers.
You might say, "No problem. We’ve been installing used parts in vehicles for years."
And that may be fine for some parts, but the case against using salvage airbag components should be clearly understood — for your own good and for the safety of consumers.
The Safety System
Let’s start with a brief explanation of how an airbag functions: With sensors mounted either in the control unit (single-point system) or mounted remotely throughout the vehicle (multi-point system), the system detects a sudden deceleration of the vehicle. In a frontal impact of sufficient severity, sensors detect sudden deceleration; the controller determines if the crash is severe enough and, if it is, triggers the inflator module(s), inflating a cloth bag packed inside the steering wheel or instrument panel. This whole series of events is accomplished in less time than it takes to blink.
But airbags are only part of the system. The seat belts in many cars are pyrotechnically charged to tighten before the occupant starts to move forward and are designed to stretch to reduce the speed of the occupant before they make contact with the bag. Without the airbag, however, the seat belts may not limit the occupant’s forward movement enough to prevent him or her from striking the steering wheel or the interior of the car. The need for perfect airbag performance is crucial, and the consequences of malfunction are far-reaching.
What the Industry Is Saying
A number of publications have advertisements for used airbags and airbag covers. One such company marketing airbag cosmetic covers even advertises that they have, "all legal documents included for your protection." They want you to believe that if you install an airbag cosmetic cover in place of a working airbag and the owner gets into an accident and is injured or killed because there was no airbag, their "legal documents" will protect you. The thing is, unless the vehicle owner has a letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) approving the installation of an on/off switch or the disabling of the airbag for that particular vehicle, you aren’t protected.
With the entry of such low-cost salvage airbags into the collision repair arena, questions regarding their origin and safety — along with the liability and ethics of their use — are being raised by automobile manufacturers, collision repairers and insurers.
"Toyota is always concerned with the use of low-quality replacement parts because they can compromise the integrity of the vehicle," said Robin LeFevre, national parts product manager for Toyota Motor Sales, in "Toyota Collision Pros, Fall 1999." "In the case of salvage airbags, it becomes a question of precise performance — and customers deserve nothing less than a factory-tested and -warranted system when it comes to matters of safety."
Because of the critical nature of airbag operation, Toyota doesn’t support the use of any salvage or imitation parts for repair. This position is echoed by other carmakers, all of which discourage the use of salvage airbags. Ford Motor Co., for example, believes the interests of vehicle owners and collision repairers are best protected by the use of genuine Ford replacement parts.
Insurance companies share these concerns. "We follow the recommendations of the manufacturers, and our basic policy is that we do not list recycled airbags on our estimates," says John Kent, senior claims consultant of auto property for State Farm Insurance. "We also advocate the replacement of all components listed by the manufacturer when an airbag has been deployed."
The Automotive Occupant Restraints Council (AORC) position concerning the use of salvage airbags and seat belts is as follows: Restraint systems in motor vehicles are designed to very specific requirements. These specifications are vehicle specific; that is, they depend on the characteristics of a particular make, mode and model year. To ensure acceptable crash protection when restraint systems are replaced, the replacement system must have identical performance to the original system. Additionally, the restraint system must be capable of proper operation that’s free from defects. Accordingly, AORC member companies recommend against the use of salvage airbags and seat belts. Further, AORC member companies don’t support the use of unqualified components for the manufacture or repair of these safety devices. This position is taken because of the potential adverse impact on the safety of automobile drivers and passengers.
The Cons of Salvage Airbags
Although most salvage products may perform acceptably, there’s still significant concern over the following issues regarding salvage airbags:
• Airbags may have been exposed to conditions, such as excessive heat or shock loads or flood waters, that go beyond their design capability. These conditions can result in unacceptable airbag performance. There’s no test that can be performed to verify that such exposure hasn’t occurred and that the airbags will perform acceptably.
• There’s significant potential of using modules with different performance levels that can fit various vehicles. This situation can also occur with interchangeability of steering wheels containing modules or steering columns containing modules and wheels. Thus, airbag systems could be installed in vehicles with incorrect restraint performance.
• Some "re-manufactured" airbags offered for sale may not provide proper restraint performance and may have the potential to cause injury. These re-manufactured airbags may include a mixture of components from various manufacturers and may have improper repairs.
Issues concerning seat belts:
• There’s a possibility the seat belt system may have been damaged in a collision. This damage can occur without showing obvious signs of belt degradations. In these instances, the webbing won’t have the original strength or performance characteristics. It’s also very likely many of the major load-bearing components have been stressed, resulting in reduced system strength, faulty inertia sensing mechanisms and unreliable buckle latching.
• Seat belts have installation requirements that are vehicle specific. Any deviation from the original installation geometry can result in delayed or non-locking retractors. There’s also a potential to reduce the restraint of the anchoring points.
• Some seat belt components can be "mixed and matched." This can result in ineffective belt routing on the occupant and reduced safety performance.
• The manufacture and subsequent use of unqualified components in either airbags or seat belts can lead to performance failures.
It’s the consumer who ultimately pays the price of salvage airbag usage — either as a victim of theft or when an airbag system doesn’t function properly, creating a tremendous safety risk and significant liability issues for the installer.
But this goes way beyond the physical responsibility of replacing a guaranteed product. You’re dealing with people’s lives here. As a repairer, you have an ethical responsibility to ensure an airbag will do its intended job.
Writer Stephen T. Lemnah is the manager of corporate training for Airbag Service, a network of airbag system specialists.