Danger in the Dashboard

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - Your seat belt and an airbag -- one should NEVER be without the other -- are the only things that may keep you in this world in the event of a crash.

But at 1/30th of a second, about the time of an eye-blink, that airbag could be a killer itself if it was salvaged from a previous accident.

Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/) reviewed 1,446 fatal crashes.  In 255 of them, the airbags had not been replaced after a previous accident, according to the agency.

The Tennessee Department of Revenue (http://tn.gov/revenue/) is responsible for inspecting rebuilt vehicles for titling.  Sophie Moery, the department's spokesperson, says from July 2008 to March of this year, the department rejected 2,065 applications for rebuilt titles out of 14,015 inspections.

14 of those rejects were for faulty or missing airbags, although none of those originated in West Tennessee.

Carfax (www.carfax.com/airbag) offers free tracking of salvaged titles/vehicles in which an airbag deployment has been reported.  Consumers can type in the 17-digit VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) and see if the airbag of a used vehicle may have been replaced.

"Whether they replace it with a stolen or salvaged airbag or not at all, packing the unit with packing peanuts or even two-by-fours," says Chris Basso, media relations manager for Carfax.

According to NHTSA's Rae Tyson, there is no federal regulation of the sale or installation of used airbags.  Regulations are left to the states because states regulate insurance companies, which often have the final word on salvaged airbags and auto titles.

But in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, it is legal to sell and install used or salvaged airbags.  Each state mandates penalties, including jail time, for improperly installed airbags, but they are usually not discovered until after an accident.

Bill Bright, chief prosecutor for the Shelby County District Attorney General's White Collar Crime Unit, says his team has no record of a complaint or a prosecution of an airbag violation.

The Action News 5 Investigators were able to confirm used airbag sales at four Mid-South salvage companies:  LKQ Salvage/Keystone in Southeast Memphis; A-1 Wrecker & Auto Salvage in West Memphis, AR; Smith's Tri-State Auto Parts in Walls, MS; and Lindsey Bros. Auto Rebuilders in Booneville, MS.

Each one of them denied our requests for interviews about the safety of the used airbags they sell.

One of the company's representatives, who asked not to be identified, told Action News 5 it has a "country" market for used airbags.  He said his company sells them to small shade-tree mechanics who install the salvaged bags in vehicles that don't do much highway or city driving.

Michael Whitlock is an 18-year body shop professional and airbag expert who runs Collisionworx (www.collisionworxinc.com), 6916 Appling Farms Parkway.  He says there is no way a salvage company can guarantee the safety of a salvaged airbag once it leaves the lot.

"I would say no," says Whitlock.  "The insurance companies certainly do not (accept) after-market or used airbags."

Especially for Action News 5, Whitlock demonstrated four ways a consumer can determine if someone either improperly replaced or tampered with a used car's airbags:

* THUMBNAIL SCRATCH.  Run a thumbnail or fingernail across the front of the driver's side or passenger airbag.  If the bag's cover smudges, Whitlock says it's been dyed to look new.  Also, notice if there is a color change after the scratch.  It may be a bag from a previous accident in a car with a different colored dashboard or steering column.

* SEAM SEARCH.  If you can see the seam of the previous airbag running vertically down the cover, then chances are the airbag has been improperly replaced or not at all.

* SENSOR CHECK.  Start the ignition.  Look for the icon of the person strapped in with a seat belt and an airbag in front of him.  It should be flashing, prompting you to put on your seat belt.

"It's (also) doing a self-test," explains Whitlock.  "It's checking all the components of the airbag."

Whitlock says if the sensor stops blinking AND STAYS ON, then there is something wrong with the airbag system.

* GLUE RESIDUE.  Check for dried, excess glue residue around the steering column, dashboard or glove box.  That could be a sign of a slapped-together bag job.