Most drivers assume their vehicle's air bags are in place and will deploy as needed, but that's not necessarily true, especially if the car was bought used or repaired by an unfamiliar shop after an accident where the air bag deployed.
A good air bag -- one designed to fit in a particular make and model of vehicle -- isn't cheap. Driver-side bags can cost $200-$700 or more each, and passenger-side bags can be $400-$1,000 or more each -- and that's just for the bag itself. Installation and related parts typically bring total costs for professional replacement to $1,000-$6,000 or more, depending on the year, make and model of vehicle, and the number and location of the air bags.
Those high prices mean criminals have taken notice. Statistics vary, but insurance industry experts estimate that 50,000-75,000 air bags are stolen each year. And outright theft is just one of the problems.
The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration has issued a safety warning about counterfeit air bags being sold to consumers and repair shop suppliers, saying that in testing many either didn't work or spewed dangerous shrapnel into the vehicle. And an unscrupulous shop might not even use a cheap counterfeit air bag, instead filling the space with rags or newspapers, or even installing the cover over an empty spot where the air bag should be.
How to protect yourself
- If you bought your vehicle new and haven't had the air bag replaced or stolen, you're fine.
- If an air bag must be replaced after a theft or accident (air bags cannot safely be reused), NHSTA recommends that the work should be done by a new car dealership or a reputable repair shop that uses parts certified by the original manufacturer of the vehicle. (While the NHSTA estimates that the counterfeiting problem only affects about 0.1% of vehicles in the United States, it suggests erring on the side of caution.) If possible, ask to inspect the new air bag before it is installed.
- When buying a used car, ask the seller detailed questions and get a vehicle history, which should list any accidents, including whether the air bag deployed. If the seller says the air bags were replaced, ask where the work was done, and if the parts were certified. Inspect the air bag cover for unevenness, seams or signs of repainting; the cover should have both the vehicle and SRS (safety restraint system) logos. If anything looks suspicious, pay to have the car inspected by a reputable mechanic (typically about $80-$100), including scanning the air bags. A video by RockAuto Parts in Madison, WI explains how to inspect an air bag.