The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should develop more sources of information about potentially unsafe and defective replacement crash parts, the U.S. General Accounting Office says.
NHTSA also should investigate the safety of recycled airbag systems and determine whether regulatory action is needed, says the agency, which is the investigative arm of Congress.
'A number of auto manufacturers and repair shop owners argue that aftermarket crash parts are inferior to original parts and pose a possible safety risk,' the agency says. 'Conversely, many aftermarket manufacturers and auto insurers argue that aftermarket crash parts can be equal in quality to original parts, are safe, and can cost up to 65 percent less than the original equipment manufacturer's parts.'
In reviewing NHTSA's legal authority over such parts and over recycled airbags, the agency found:
Studies on the safety of aftermarket crash parts and recycled airbag modules are not conclusive. Studies have been done on behalf of industry and consumer groups and companies in the United States and Canada.
For example, the agency says: 'The two studies on the safety of recycled airbags that we've identified concluded that they can be a potentially safe, economical alternative to new airbags as long as they are undamaged and properly handled and installed. However, the failure of some flood-damaged airbags to deploy correctly also demonstrates the potential for serious safety consequences.'
NHTSA has limited ability to identify and recall unsafe aftermarket parts. That is partially because of limitations in its database of complaints.
NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd says the agency intends to respond.
Bob Braun, director of the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association in St. Cloud, Minn., says he hadn't read the report, but said the association hasn't encountered safety problems. 'As long as they comply with the specifications that are needed, it's not a problem,' he said.
Bill Steinkuller, executive director of the Automotive Recyclers Association in Fairfax, Va., says research shows no cause for concern about the safety of 'properly removed, properly stored, properly installed' airbag modules.
According to the General Accounting Office report, NHTSA has authority to regulate aftermarket crash parts but has not developed safety standards to do so because the agency has not determined that any such parts have safety-related defects.