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NHTSA warns of dangers of "cheap, substandard" airbag inflator replacements

2006 Nissan Sentra, part of the "Do Not Drive" recall warnings on older vehicles in the U.S. that may have unreplaced Takata airbags.
2006 Nissan Sentra, part of the "Do Not Drive" recall warnings on older vehicles in the U.S. that may have unreplaced Takata airbags.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is warning drivers about “cheap, substandard replacement air bag inflators” in used cars that can fail to prevent serious injuries or death in a vehicle wreck.

The agency said Wednesday that three people have been killed and two suffered severe injuries in the past nine months due to substandard, aftermarket air bag inflators.

“If consumers own or are considering the purchase of a used vehicle, NHTSA urges them to learn their vehicle’s history and ensure their vehicle has genuine air bag inflators,” the agency said.

In each of the five cases in which someone was killed or injured, the vehicle had previously been involved in a crash and the original airbags were replaced. Malfunctioning airbag inflators sent “large metal fragments into drivers’ chests, necks, eyes and faces, killing or severely injuring drivers in otherwise survivable crashes,” according to NHTSA.

"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," the agency said.

Other cheap inflators may deploy too slowly, or partially, meaning occupants of a vehicle may strike the dashboard or steering wheel in a collision.

Anyone in the hunt for a used vehicle should secure a vehicle history report, or do so now if they did not before buying a vehicle, the NHTSA said Wednesday.

If it is determined by a car dealership or a qualified mechanic that a vehicle has a faulty air bag inflator, the NHTSA advises replacing them and notifying a local Homeland Security Investigations office, or FBI field office.

These faulty airbags are separate from the ones involved in the ongoing Takata airbag recall. Long-term exposure to high heat and humidity can cause these air bags to explode when deployed. The recall involved tens of millions of vehicles worldwide, causing 27 deaths in the U.S. and at least 400 injuries, many involving disfigurement.

There are still some vehicles on the road in the U.S. with unreplaced Takata airbags. A number of these vehicles have "do not drive" warnings, because the risk of the airbag inflator exploding and discharging shrapnel during deployment in a crash — even a low-speed crash — is 50% or higher.

The most recent addition to NHTSA's "do not drive" list involves certain model year 2002-2006 Nissan Sentra, 2002-2004 Nissan Pathfinder and 2002-2003 Infiniti QX4 vehicles.

Airbag replacements for vehicles involved in the Takata airbag recall are free at vehicle brand dealerships.

The Associated Press is an independent global news organization dedicated to factual reporting.
Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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