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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently issued a warning that upwards of 250,000 cars on the road could be equipped with counterfeit airbags. While that accounts for only 0.1 percent of the vehicle fleet in the U.S., that is a large number of vehicles that could be offering a false sense of safety to the occupants of those vehicles.

The warning is directed to car owners whose airbags have been replaced in last three years. In tests conducted by NHTSA last month on 11 counterfeit airbags, 10 did not inflate at all or did not inflate properly. One counterfeit airbag discharged flames and metal shrapnel instead of inflating properly. Fortunately, no injuries or deaths have yet been reported as a result of counterfeit airbags being installed in vehicles.

NHTSA officials stressed that the problematic airbags are not subject to any recall and are not the result of defective manufacturing by automakers. The counterfeit bags have been made to look like those in new vehicles and are marketed to auto repair and body shops as the real deal. Auto dealerships that operate their own body shops are typically required to buy replacement parts directly from automakers and are not the source of the problem. But only 37 percent of auto dealers have their own body shops, so that leaves a huge percentage of the body shop market open to exposure to the counterfeiters.

NHTSA is asking car owners to check a government website,, for information on how to determine if their vehicle is one for which counterfeit airbags have been produced. If a vehicle is on the list and has had its airbags replaced in the last three years by a repair shop other than a new car dealership, NHTSA is requesting that the owner have the airbags inspected. The fees for inspecting the airbags may run $100 or more, but that is a small price to pay to ensure the proper operation of a very important safety feature of the family vehicles.

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