Air bag theft and fraud are putting consumers’ lives in danger. Tragically, missing air bags sometimes cause serious or even fatal injuries.
In a heart-rending incident, San Diego-area parents Robert and Mary Ellsworth, members of CARS, lost their 18-year-old son Bobby, who had recently graduated from high school Why? Because his friend’s pickup truck was missing the front air bags. Bobby was riding as a passenger on a narrow, winding road when the the pickup collided head-on with a BMW. The Ellsworths didn’t find out until later that the pickup had been in an earlier crash. The front end was heavily damaged and both front air bags had deployed.
The former owner’s insurance company, State Farm, had decided it was not worth fixing. So the insurance giant “totaled” it. But that wasn’t the end of the line. Instead of ensuring it was sold only for scrap, or parts, they sent it to an auction where it was sold to the highest bidder. The same thing happens with an estimated 1.5 million vehicles each year. This way, State Farm and other auto insurers manage to recoup more for their “totaled” cars than if they were sold only for parts.
The buyer made shoddy repairs and cut corners. Sealing Bobby’s fate, he decided not to replace the air bags. Instead, he stuffed the empty compartments where the air bags belonged with craft paper. Then he covered them up, so it appeared that the air bags were intact.
Bobby’s friend, who was driving the pickup, and the driver and passengers riding in the BMW — equipped with air bags — survived. After the crash, experts who examined the wreckage concluded that if the passenger air bag had been replaced, Bobby would also have survived.
Air bags are a tremendous bargain, especially compared to losing a life. But — not to unscrupulous rebuilders, who are only interested in making a quick buck. Auto crash investigators have discovered air bag compartments packed with whatever was handy — rags, Styrofoam, packing peanuts, or even crushed beer cans.
Then the auto fraudsters cover them up. It’s cheap and easy to buy fake air bag covers over the internet. Companies that sell the fakes offer them complete with manufacturer logos or the initials “SRS” — standing for “supplemental restraint system” — embossed on the cover. Connecticut’s former Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, cracked down on one company that advertised fake air bags in Connecticut. But state law enforcement officials’ hands may be tied, when the companies are located in other states, or sell the fakes over the internet.
Won’t a warning light come of if the air bags aren’t working? Not necessarily. Some shady rebuilders also tamper with the circuitry that reports on the air bag status, when you turn on a car. Bottom line: you can’t count on a warning to alert you the air bags are missing, or the electronics that control them are corroding due to flood damage.
How can you make sure any used car you’re considering still has all the air bags intact? Insist on having a trusted, reliable independent auto technician check out the car, including checking all the air bags, before you buy. This report shows what can happen if you don’t get a vehicle inspected first: