Accidents happen.  When car accidents happen, certain safety features are activated.  If the accident is severe enough, then you may end up with air bag deployment.  But if you bought a used car, how do you know if the airbag will deploy when you need it most?  Unscrupulous mechanics and thieves are stealing airbags and doing air bag “repairs” without any airbag being installed at all – which is why a free carfax is an imperative step in purchasing a used car. 

1. Understand the Importance of an Airbag

If you have never been in a severe accident, then you might not even think too much about your airbag.  Airbags are a type of supplemental restraint, meaning that they work along with your seat belt to help prevent injury during an accident.  If the accident is severe enough, the airbags deploy, giving you an instant pillow to help cushion the force.

Once the airbag is deployed, however, it can be challenging to reinstall it.Out of 25 vehicles in an accident that deployed an airbag, one will have an improper airbag system reinstalled.  This can run the gamut of impropriety, including airbags that simply don’t work, are outdated, orare the wrong make and model for the car.  Worse, the “repair” could be made with airbags removed from salvaged cars or inappropriate materials stuffed into the place where the airbag should have been.

2. Discern if Your Airbag System is Genuine

Each year, about a million “totaled” cars are rebuilt and put back on the road after receiving salvage titles from the insurance companies.  During the rebuilding process, the airbag compartment is restored.  However, the average consumer usually cannot tell whether a car has a genuine airbag installed.  If a used car is in an accident with air bag deployment, the mechanic is supposed to replace the entire air bag deployment system.  Instead, some dishonest employees are filling the airbags with junk from around the shop and then replacing the cover.  Not only do you not get the protection of an airbag in an accident, but the items could be ejected from the dashboard or steering wheel and cause further injury.

The crime is made easier by the fact that the airbag system cover is generally purchased separately from the airbags themselves.  The covers are designed to replace the original covers that had been damaged, so that your steering wheel or dash looks like it did prior to the accident.  These covers can be installed without an actual airbag.  Even the airbag warning lights on the dash can be bypassed, tricked to show that an airbag system exists, even if there is not one.  Most states do not have any laws covering airbag system replacement, so it truly becomes a buyer beware scenario.

What makes the crime of airbag fraud so common?  The high cash payout for the dishonest mechanic is usually the reason.  Since the average customer has no way of knowing whether or not an airbag was restored, it is easy enough for the mechanic to slap a cover on it and pocket the thousand dollars the system can cost.  By the time the customer finds out, it is usually too late.

Surprisingly, being in an accident is not the only way that an airbag can be removed from the vehicle.  When thieves take a car for parts, one of the most commonly taken items is the air bag.  Over 70,000 airbags are stolen each year in the United States.  These airbags then become part of the black market, being resold to mechanics on the cheap for use as replacement systems.  Again, cost plays a major factor, as the mechanic can do the job cheaply and pocket a significant amount of profit with little risk of being found out.

3. Begin a Free VIN Check

The best way to avoid becoming a victim of airbag fraud is to arm yourself with information.  Use all the information that is available, including running a VIN check for free.  Some dealers will run a VIN number report for you, but when you are considering buying from a private owner, you should pay to do the research yourself. 

4. Enter the VIN into the VINCheckPro Website

With the 17-digit VIN number, enter it into the search box on the VINCheckPro website and click “Check this VIN.” 

5. Review the Report for Any Accidents

VIN Check Pro generates a thorough report from all of its federal, local, and insurance databases, and it is important to look for any accident history or salvage titles.  If you do see an accident on the record, bring the car to a trusted mechanic who can perform a thorough inspection of the airbag to see if it was properly repaired or replaced. 

6. Get the Car Inspected

Even if there is no accident history on the report, consider bringing the car to a professional mechanic to ask for an inspection of the airbags and whether there is any evidence of a previous car accident.   

7. Conduct a Test Drive

While not foolproof, you can also use your test drive to ascertain whether the airbag has been tampered.  When you start the ignition, the airbag indicator light should turn on quickly and then go back out.  A problem is indicated if the light continues to flash or if it stays on.  If the light never comes on at all, even momentarily, then it could be that the bulb has been taken out.  The light may also not come on if a former owner had an on-off switch installed, but in those cases, the owner should be able to provide documentation of the switch and turn the airbag back on for you.

Airbag fraud creates a serious risk when buying a used car.  Make sure that your airbags are all working properly before it turns into a problem for you.