Airbag recalls 'could open door for counterfeiters'

NHTSA airbag testingJust days after her Oklahoma high school graduation, Ashley Parham was killed when her Honda's airbag deployed in a minor accident, then exploded, sending metal pieces of shrapnel into her neck.

Today, six years later, 33.8 million vehicles have been recalled by 11 auto makers, to replace faulty airbags manufactured by Japanese parts supplier Takata. It is the same supplier which provided the airbag for Ashley Parham.

As in the Oklahoma tragedy, the recalled airbags can explode when deployed.

"In some cases, the incidents were horrific," says a Consumer Reports article, although it hastened to add that airbags have also saved thousands of lives over the last few years.

And it gets worse, making for severely troubled waters for carmakers, waters in which counterfeiters love to fish.

To be sure, most of the recalled bags are not counterfeits, but fatally-flawed line products. Some, but a small percentage, are on a counterfeit airbags watchlist, published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2012. Owners are finding that the fakes are not covered by the terms of the recall, and they are simply stuck with the bill.

More alarming, and perhaps in response to the sudden spike in demand, counterfeits are now "flooding the market," at least according to one Seattle newspaper. Counterfeit airbags have been proliferating for years, but there is evidence that the pace has accelerated. And the counterfeits exhibit many of the same deadly behaviours of the faulty ones from Takata. 

The problem is that while the recalled airbags are being replaced as fast as possible, this is unfortunately not all that quickly.

According to Consumer Reports: "Many affected owners are learning that it may take weeks or months for their replacement airbags to arrive. Takata’s assembly lines are at maximum capacity, but according to a recent Automotive News report, even with the higher production rate, it could still take as long as two years to build replacement airbag."

Other airbag makers, such as the Swedish giant Autoliv may step in, but even they will face months of ramp-up time, and more months of safety testing by government regulators. The only hope seems to be in somehow greatly increasing supply, by means as yet unknown.

Until now, counterfeit airbags have been sold mainly as replacement parts in vehicles involved in crashes. But the sudden need to replace millions of bags has opened a far wider window for exploitation by counterfeiters.

The fake bags look identical, complete with phony certification labeling.  But testing by the NHTSA shows consistent non-deployment, and shrapnel explosions.

In a case last month in Seattle where two Canadian men were arrested for selling counterfeit airbags, a Homeland Security agent told the court:

“Counterfeit airbags produce a range of results, from the airbag not deploying at all to catastrophic failures where the airbag produces a fireball and forcefully expels metal shrapnel."

"Auto repair shops are buying and installing these counterfeit air bags into vehicles they repair in an effort to avoid the costs of genuine airbags.”

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