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No one disputes the fact that airbags are one of the most important safety innovations to protect passengers during a crash by instantaneously inflating when a serious accident occurs. Frontal airbags have been required in all new passenger vehicles since 1999.

Side airbags aren’t mandated, but nearly all manufacturers include them, in ever growing numbers, to meet federal protection requirements and to appeal to safety-conscious consumers.

But what happens when a car has been in an accident and airbags deploy? What replacement options are available for today’s consumers? And why is it difficult to harvest and market undeployed original equipment manufacturer (OEM) airbags from vehicles being scrapped?

A scrap industry expert, who wished to remain anonymous, sees the issue from the perspective of how to safely deploy or remove undeployed airbags in vehicles headed to the shredder. He shared, “People are reluctant to talk about the subject of airbags because there is no national policy or widespread state approved practices guiding the removal of airbags from vehicles before they get recycled. Generally we ask dismantlers to remove airbags before they sell us the scrapped vehicles. Sometimes our customers take cars “as is” and the problem, especially with more and more recent models, is there are numerous undeployed airbags, up to 12 in some cases. They are very difficult to get to and very costly to remove from the vehicle before you shred it. What happens is most airbags go through the shredder, and most are deployed because of friction and pressure. We’re still seeing both aluminum and steel airbag canisters.

“The airbag is primarily a safety issue if it’s deployed in a place where people are around, such as when dismantling or in a picking line. Generally that’s considered an environmental and safety issue because the explosive propellant in some older airbag units when detonated can cause injuries. Fortunately, most airbags are deployed in the shredder.

“Ideally, the scrap industry would like auto manufacturers to adopt the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) Design for Recycling model in which the manufacturer plans for the recycling of the car during its development. I’m not aware of any significant market for reused OEM airbags,” the scrap industry expert concluded.

Michael E. Wilson, chief executive officer of the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA) disagrees. “Recycled OEM airbags continue to be used throughout the U.S. and around the globe. While many of the major U.S. automotive insurance companies have yet to sign onto their widespread reutilization, there continues to be a substantial market for these units. Rebuilders and consumers faced with non-insurance covered claims, among others, are currently the top users of undeployed OEM airbags. ARA, an international trade association of professional automotive recyclers, strongly supports the reuse of undeployed OEM airbags which have met specific industry standards and that those evaluated recycled airbag components are a safe, economically-smart repair alternative to restore vehicles to their pre-accident condition.”

The ARA believes that consumers benefit from competition, standards and safety, and the only alternative to a new, expensive OEM airbag is a recycled, undeployed OEM unit, which in some cases can save a motor vehicle owner up to 60 percent off the cost of a new one from a franchised dealer. According to Wilson, auto manufacturers seek a monopoly on OEM replacement airbags and consumers’ safety and pocketbooks are paying the price.

Over the past few years, ARA has met on a number of occasions with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to secure greater recognition of the use of recycled, undeployed OEM airbags in automotive repairs.

ARA’s objective is to have regulators and related industry sectors gain a greater appreciation of the proven role that undeployed OEM airbags have played in the motor vehicle repair process. ARA emphasizes the following facts:

  • Studies have been conducted that illustrate the safety of the recycled, undeployed airbag.
  • ARA has an established, recognized protocol designed to ensure best management practices are followed by those who handle undeployed, recycled airbags.
  • To ARA’s knowledge, there have been no reports of a malfunctioning recycled airbag installed as a repair part in a vehicle.
  • Undeployed, recycled OEM airbags should never be confused with new, counterfeit airbags.

“ARA appreciates its role as an important resource on airbag use guidelines for the professional automotive recycling community,” said Wilson. “ARA will continue to advocate to eBay and others that only qualified professional automotive recyclers who are qualified should be able to harvest and sell undeployed OEM airbags. ARA continues to educate NHTSA to be attentive in its actions to ensure that consumers continue to have access to affordable options when OEM replacement airbags are needed in the repair of a vehicle.”

To ensure airbag safety standards are met, in 2006 ARA launched ARAPro. This protocol was developed as a national standard to ensure best practices are applied to the process of extracting, handling, inspecting, and storing recycled OEM undeployed airbags from salvaged vehicles. Using the vehicle identification number and other interchange reference sources, ARAPro enables the repairer to match the make, model, and year of the replacement component to the vehicle under repair. ARAPro recycled OEM airbags complying with the airbag protocol, are supplied with a certificate that can be used by state motor vehicle agencies to verify that a protocol compliant OEM undeployed airbag has been used.

American Recycler News also asked the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for its views on reusing OEM airbags. This U.S., non-profit organization is funded by auto insurance companies and works to reduce motor vehicle crashes, the rate of injuries, and amount of property damage.

Russ Rader, senior vice president of communications at IIHS commented, “A new replacement airbag module from the original manufacturer of the vehicle should be used for vehicles that require an airbag replacement. However, when it’s not possible to buy a new airbag module, the Institute recommends that care be taken to identify a salvaged airbag module that has been inspected and certified. Certification documentation should include the VIN number of the vehicle from which the airbag was removed, the airbag salvage date, storage location and shipment details. Buyers should also check the NHTSA recall database for any recalls that may apply to the salvaged airbag.

“Processing salvaged airbag modules can present a number of difficulties. The designs of the airbag systems in most cars have been improved in recent years, sometimes several times. Therefore, there’s a significant possibility of a mismatch between the salvaged airbag module and the vehicle being repaired.

“Another issue involves the possibility of water damage. There is a risk that salvaged airbag modules will be from vehicles that have been in floods, or that the airbag module was exposed to precipitation while at the salvage facility. Water damage can adversely affect the way an airbag inflates. Unfortunately, there is no standard method to test the functionality of salvaged airbags.

“Using salvaged airbags could also encourage airbag theft, which is already a significant problem. In recent years thieves have developed a black market for airbags, which they sell at a low price to unethical repair-shop owners, who then charge customers the standard price for an OEM replacement airbag,” Rader said.

Insurance industry statistics show that approximately 50,000 airbags are stolen each year, resulting in an annual loss of more than $50 million to vehicle owners and their insurers. According to The National Insurance Crime Bureau, airbags have become a primary accessory on the black market for stolen vehicle parts. A new OEM airbag, which retails for approximately $1,000 from a car dealer, can cost anywhere from $50 to $200 for a stolen module.

Then there’s the problem of counterfeit, aftermarket airbags, ones never certified by the original auto manufacturer to meet the same standards as the OEM airbag. These may look identical to airbags certified to federal standards, but Investigations conducted by NHTSA show that counterfeit airbags consistently malfunction.

Stolen and counterfeit airbags, and underhanded sales practices, may explain why many people do not want to talk about the legitimate harvesting and reuse of OEM airbags. American Recycler called several companies that advertised used OEM airbags on the Internet. Some posted price savings claims of up to 75 percent over new OEM airbags. None would discuss their operations. Even, large, reputable used auto parts reclaimers declined to comment on the subject.

Most automakers say that an airbag is designed for a specific model and it’s not safe to take an airbag out of one vehicle and put it in another even if it appears to be identical. That’s why manufacturers always recommend the use of an OEM replacement.

We asked David Wagger, Ph.D. and director of environmental management at ISRI (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries) about recycling airbags.

“ISRI’s Designed for Recycling is a good program to help solve a large number of recycling issues and questions so that better designs can lead to benefits for both auto manufacturers and recyclers. Airbags certainly fall into that category. ISRI’s position has been that any vehicle delivered for recycling should have airbags either deployed or removed. Then the issue is resolved prior to the vehicle arriving at a recycling facility and workers don’t have to deal with potential hazards if one goes off during the recycling process.”

Practically, it seems a waste not to reuse undeployed airbags from vehicles being scrapped. The metal value of the canisters is negligible while the saving of using a recovered OEM airbag is substantial. Perhaps ARA and responsible used parts dealers have a solution…a rigorous protocol for harvesting and storage, well-trained workers and meticulous documentation to the repair shop and the vehicle owner to assure that the correct OEM airbag replacement is installed. 

Published in the September 2014 Edition of American Recycler News