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Counterfeit air bags may not inflate, US safety watchdog says

If you’re in a serious collision your car’s airbag could save your life.  Or maybe not.

The Obama Administration has issued a public warning that millions of vehicles that have undergone repairs after a serious crash could pose severe safety risks due to the use of counterfeit replacement airbags.

The government estimates that “tens of thousands of counterfeit  air bags” are now unknowingly in use in American automobiles.

“We want consumers to be immediately aware of this problem and to review our safety information to see if their vehicle could be in need of inspection,” said a statement by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood issued ahead of today’s formal announcement.

Counterfeit components have been a plague on the auto industry for decades and the list of affected parts is a large one, covering just about everything one might find in an automobile, from sheet metal to lug nuts.  But some fake parts can prove particularly dangerous – such as airbags that either won’t deploy or might improperly inflate during a crash.

“Air bags in particular play a central role in keeping drivers and passengers safe in the event of a crash,” said Administrator David Strickland of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Each of a vehicle’s airbags is designed to operate in a specific way and may inflate to varying degrees depending on the severity of a crash.  The fakes that the government is warning about likely will not function properly if they work at all.

Recent tests of 11 fakes found that the majority either failed to work or inflated improperly and some actually threw shrapnel as they inflated.

Related story: Toyota has biggest car recall since 1996

NHTSA  says that it believes the vast majority of replacement parts are genuine and that “this issue affects less than 0.1 percent of the U.S. vehicle fleet.”

The challenge will be to find the affected vehicles. The government’s automotive safety agency has released a list of 100 models most at risk, a mix of Detroit, Japanese and European models including such mainstays as the Ford Focus, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Jetta.

The counterfeit airbag issue reportedly only involves vehicles that have been repaired within the last three years, and does not involve either original factory equipment nor repairs made by certified new car dealership repair shops.

Those who have had their vehicles repaired by independent service shops may be at risk. And the government is warning that consumers who might have tried to purchase replacement airbags through the Internet may be at particular risk.

Vendors have been known to offer counterfeit bags for as little as $50 while factory originals may cost as much as $1,000.

The government has been investigating the problem for a number of years and intercepted a shipment of 68 counterfeit bags heading to an address in Chattanooga, Tenn., in September 2008. They were identified as replacements for Audi, BMW, Lexus and Toyota vehicles.

Last February, Chinese businessman Dai Zhensong pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced to 37 months in jail in connection with that scam. He was one of three owners of Guangzhou Global Auto Parts International Group, based in Guangzhou, China, which the government claimed in a court filing “specializes in the production of counterfeit air bags.”

Another 1,163 fakes were intercepted during an August raid in North Carolina conducted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Automakers, trade groups and insurance organizations have been increasingly vigilant in trying to stamp out the problem of fake auto parts.  Actions by General Motors alone resulted in the seizure of $250 million in counterfeits since 1985.  Meanwhile, the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association estimates as much as $45 billion in business could be lost to counterfeits worldwide.

In some instances, the problem may just result in cosmetic issues – a fender that doesn’t quite meet factory spec shape, for example.  But fake oil filters can cause engine failures.  And the government is warning counterfeit airbags could lead to injuries or death.

The government will warn owners of vehicles on the list who have had airbags replaced after a crash to go to a certified dealer to have the devices checked.  Such inspections, the government says, could cost as much as $100 as they would not be considered part of a vehicle’s warranty.

NHTSA warns that the initial list of vehicles could “evolve over time,” as it learns more about the problem. And the number of fakes in use on U.S. roads could prove higher than initially reported.

The initial “At Risk” list includes:

2009-11 TSX

2006-09 A3, A4, A6, A8, Q5, Q7

2007-11 X5, E70, E60, E61
2008-10 5-series, 528i, 535i
2004-07 5-Series, 525i, 530, 535, E60, E61
2007-11 E90, E91
E92, E93 (unspecified years)
2007-11 X5, E70
2004-07 525i, 530, 535
2011-12 X3

2010-11 Lacrosse

2011-12 Cruze
2006-10 Aveo
2011-12 Volt
2012 Camaro

2012 Focus
2005-09 Mustang

2003-12 Accord
2006-11 Civic
2002-11 CRV
2007-11 Fit
2009-11 Pilot
2009-11 Insight
2009-11 Crosstour
2011 Odyssey

2007-11 Elantra
Genesis (unspecified years)
Sonata (unspecified years)

2007-11 G35, EX35

2010-11 Soul/Forte
2004-09 Spectra

Land Rover
2012 Range Rover Evoque

2006-11IS250, IS350, IS-F
2003-08 GX470
2007-09 RX350
ES350 (unspecified years)

2004 Mazda 3
2010-12 Mazda 3

2009-11 C, GLK
2010-11 E350, E550
2007-08 S550
2006-09 ML
2009-10 GL, ML

Outlander (unspecified years)

1992-2002 Quest
2010-11 Quest
2009-11 Cube
2007-11 Versa
2009-10 Murano
Altima (unspecified years)

2008-09 Forester
2008-09 Impreza
2008-09 Outback
2010-11 Legacy

2007-10 SX4

2002-06 Camry
2012 Camry
2009-11 Corolla, Matrix
2007-11 Yaris
2004-11 Highlander
2004-11 Sienna
2004-11 Tacoma
2010-12 Prius
2003-11 Tundra
2003-06 Sequoia
2003-10 Land Cruiser
2004-10 Highlander
2004-09 4Runner
2007-09 Solara
2005-11 RAV4

2006-10 Jetta

XC60, XC70 (unspecified years)
V70, S60, S80 (unspecified years)

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