Dealers duck airbag costs
Dealers face difficult conversations with motorists about counterfeit aftermarket airbags that may not inflate in an accident or perhaps spew metal shrapnel when they do. The issue: telling customers they will have to pay to replace the potentially dangerous bags.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said last week that a small percentage of vehicles -- less than 0.1 percent of the U.S. fleet -- that had been repaired by independent garages in the past three years may have had counterfeit airbags installed as replacement parts.
The counterfeit airbags look nearly identical to certified parts and bear the insignia and branding of major automakers, NHTSA said.
The agency said consumers who may have affected cars and trucks should contact automakers' call centers to have their vehicles inspected and airbags replaced if necessary -- at their own expense.
"This is not a typical recall," a National Automobile Dealers Association 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."
He added: "But the consumers are the ones who will have to bear the entire cost."
Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, said: "The original repair shop has to bear the cost of replacing the counterfeit. If they won't do it voluntarily, the consumer should take them to small claims court."
In California, it is a crime to fraudulently repair airbags, which includes using a counterfeit airbag. Rhode Island has a similar law.
To have a vehicle evaluated will cost about $100 and to have the center steering wheel airbag replaced will cost $750 to $1,000, NADA said. Some vehicles contain up to eight airbags.
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.
Anderson said people who unknowingly had counterfeit bags installed through an insurance claim could seek reimbursement from their insurance companies.
"The initial concern is we're going to have a lot more alarmed people than we have defective airbags out there," Anderson said.
Phil Maguire, co-owner of the Maguire Family of Dealerships in Ithaca and Trumansburg, N.Y., said: "It's definitely going to be an impact for the car retailer that purchases pre-owned vehicles or takes pre-owned trades.
"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 to retail used cars."
Reuters contributed to this report