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NHTSA warns of ‘cheap, substandard’ replacement air bag inflators; BMW issues Takata recall

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has urged used car buyers and owners to be aware of “cheap, substandard” replacement air bag inflators that can cause death or serious injury in a crash.

Three people have been killed and two people have suffered life-altering, disfiguring injuries in the past nine months due to the faulty aftermarket replacement air bag inflators, according to NHTSA.

In all five cases, the vehicles had previously been involved in a crash and their original equipment air bags were replaced with defective, substandard inflators; in most cases confirmed to have been manufactured overseas, NHTSA said.

“These dangerous aftermarket parts malfunctioned in subsequent crashes, sending large metal fragments into drivers’ chests, necks, eyes, and faces, killing or severely injuring drivers in otherwise survivable crashes,” NHTSA wrote in a Wednesday warning to consumers.

“These suspect replacement parts are often manufactured by foreign companies with little to no reputation of quality manufacturing or experience, sold at prices far below the cost of quality genuine equipment, ordered online and shipped to the United States, and installed by those other than reputable repair shops or manufacturer dealerships.”

Repairer Driven News previously reported on a lawsuit filed by the estate of a Florida mother of two who was killed under similar circumstances.

Destiny Byassee was killed in a June 12, 2023 collision driving her used 2020 Chevrolet Malibu when a counterfeit front driver-side air bag “detonated like a grenade and shot metal and plastic shrapnel throughout the vehicle cabin,” according to the suit.

NHTSA says consumers who own a used car or are considering purchasing one should look at the vehicle’s history and ensure the vehicle has genuine air bag inflators.

“If their vehicle has one of these inadequate replacement parts, it could kill or critically injure them in a crash,” NHTSA wrote. “Additionally, these inflators may deploy partially or too slowly, failing to protect an occupant’s head from striking the steering wheel or dashboard.”

This advisory does not affect owners of new vehicles or those who already know the complete history of their used vehicles, NHTSA said.

NHTSA advises consumers to:

    • Obtain a vehicle history report before purchasing a used vehicle or if the history of your vehicle is unknown. “If the vehicle has been in a reported crash where the air bag deployed, visit a reputable independent mechanic or dealership for an air bag inspection to ensure the parts are genuine.” Some collision repair shops also offer safety inspections on used vehicles.
    • “Do business with reputable independent mechanics and manufacturer dealerships. When considering a purchase from a private seller, obtain a vehicle history report and have the vehicle inspected by a trusted mechanic.
    • “Ask about the replacement parts when having a vehicle serviced, including the brand and sourcing of the parts.
    • “Buy with caution when looking at automotive parts online from overseas retailers or sold at prices well below competitors. Remember, if it’s too good to be true, it likely is — and it could be deadly.
    • If you suspect your vehicle might have faulty, substandard replacement inflators, NHTSA recommends consulting your brand’s dealership or a reputable mechanic to determine if the parts need to be replaced.
    • NHTSA recommends reporting suspect inflators to your local Homeland Security Investigations office or FBI field office. An online complaint can also be submitted to the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center. Owners may also contact NHTSA online or by calling the agency’s Vehicle Safety Hotline at 888-327-4236, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST.

Collision Advice President Mike Anderson recently shared a startling example of what can go wrong when safety inspections aren’t conducted on air bags post-collision.

The example comes from a conversation Anderson had with Tyler Smith, owner of Rick’s Paint and Body, a Lexus-authorized collision center in Augusta, Georgia.

“It was the passenger head air bag that we found in numerous vehicles have been deformed,” Smith told Anderson, clarifying the shop had found four such instances. “You could see on a couple of them where the brackets where they mount up underneath the dash panel were slightly tweaked, and instead of the air bag being a nice little neat package, the top of it was bulged out almost like a loaf of bread. The webbing that kind of holds it all together was stretching so much that it was starting to separate.”

Had the inspection not been performed, this likely wouldn’t have been found since Smith said none of the vehicles showed related warning lights on the dash or diagnostic trouble codes.

Last week, BMW recalled more than 394,000 vehicles in North America because of Takata-made airbag inflators that could explode when deployed in a crash, potentially striking drivers and passengers with sharp metal fragments.

Takata, a now-bankrupt parts supplier, was responsible for manufacturing air bag canisters in defective air bag inflators that can explode and spray sharp metal fragments toward the driver and passengers, comparable to shrapnel from an exploding grenade, which has caused severe injuries and deaths.

The Takata air bag inflator recall is the largest safety recall in automotive history covering more than 67 million affected vehicles worldwide. Issues with the air bags first came to light in 2008.

BMW’s latest recall applies to:

    • 2006-2011 3 Series Sedan (324i, 325i, 325xi, 328i, 328xi, 330i, 330xi, 335i, 335xi)
    • 2006-2012 3 Series Sportswagon (325xi, 328i, 328xi)
    • 2009-2011 3 Series Sedan (335d)

The warning issued on NHTSA’s recall website states, “An inflator explosion may result in sharp metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants, resulting in serious injury or death.”

The original steering wheel may have been replaced with a sport or M-sport steering wheel equipped with an inflator that can explode during deployment, according to the warning.

Dealers will inspect and replace the driver’s air bag module as necessary, free of charge. Owner notification letters are expected to be mailed Aug. 23. Owners can contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417.

On Tuesday, Stellantis recalled 332,000 of its vehicles over a faulty seatbelt buckle switch sensor that may be improperly connected, preventing the front seat air bag from deploying as intended.

The recall applies to:

    • 2017-2024 Alfa Romeo Giulia
    • 2018-2025 Alfa Romeo Stelvio
    • 2024 Fiat 500E
    • 2019-2023 Fiat 500X
    •  2019-2023 Jeep Renegade

Dealers will repair the connection, free of charge. Owner notification letters are expected to be mailed Aug. 22. Owners can contact FCA U.S customer service at 1-800-853-1403.

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Featured image credit: Birdlkportfolio/iStock

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