Imagine you’re driving home after a pleasant dinner with friends one night. An oncoming vehicle veers and slams into your car. Glass flies and metal buckles in that terrifying split second, but your airbag doesn’t open.
I’ll let your imagination roam, and decide how badly injured you’ll be without this vital safety protection as the ambulance speeds your broken body to the emergency room.
But in the meantime, you might want to thank Dai Zhensong or others who traffic in cheap, knockoff airbags being installed in vehicles around the U.S. Also thank crooked body shops that knowingly install such rubbish (literally, but more on that in a minute).
The motive is cold profit. To be blunt…shady airbag traffickers don’t care if you live or die. They just want their blood money; whether you or your kids survive a horrific crash is your business.
Zhensong flooded the U.S. market with tens of thousands of counterfeit bags made at his plant in China. A suspected cohort named Igor Borodin allegedly sold 7,000 of the knockoffs. All told, some 250,000 bags could be out there, either installed or waiting to be installed, the feds say. Zhensong has 37 months in federal prison to rethink his career choice.
How big is airbag fraud nationally? That’s anybody’s guess; nobody keeps total stats.
And most body shops are honest, but some knowingly install worthless airbags after the valid original bags deploy during a crash. Buy a $50 knockoff from the internet or a shady street dealer, and charge the insurer several hundred dollars.
Body shops also shove beer cans, packing peanuts, old sneakers and other junk into the airbag compartment. Or they just leave the compartment empty.
Sometimes a body shop will even pull out an airbag that hasn’t deployed, then lie to the insurance adjuster that the bag had opened during the accident.
Used and salvaged vehicles are especially vulnerable to these scams, but so is your new car if it crashes. So let’s return to Zhensong. Alarmed carmakers have set up call centers that drivers like you can contact to see if your airbag is counterfeit.
Innocent drivers have died or been grievously injured without airbag protection. San Diego-area teenager Bobby Ellsworth died when the Dodge pickup truck in which he was riding crashed. A body shop had stuffed the airbag compartment with paper and glued it shut. Even the dashboard light was disabled so it wouldn’t flash a warning.
Nursing assistant Damaris Gatihi was driving along Interstate 5 in Seattle. Her Toyota Corolla was bumped from behind, then spun around and hit another vehicle head-on. Her airbag didn’t deploy; she died from massive bleeding in her heart. A body shop had cut out the airbags and glued the covers back on to make the bags look functional. A local TV investigation discovered numerous used cars for sale without airbags and phony compartment covers.
Laura Vega of Houston was badly injured and her mother killed when their car was hit head-on. Neither air bag worked. The passenger-side airbag had been previously deployed, then stuffed back in and the cover taped shut. There was no driver-side airbag at all.
Connie Van Slyke’s used minivan crashed. The Kansas City, Mo. woman was killed instantly, possibly after falling asleep at the wheel. Her neck was broken, relatives told reporters. Connie had bought the minivan used, just two weeks prior. The vehicle had been in an earlier crash and the airbags had deployed. Nobody reconnected the bags, and the dashboard warning light was removed. Connie was a single mother; she left behind three young sons.
Najma Ladhani was driving alone in her car outside of Vancouver, Canada. She swerved into an oncoming car. She was found dead, crushed over the steering wheel. A piece of foam filled the compartment instead of an airbag.
Ok, enough of these terrible deaths. Point made: Airbag cons are a nasty insurance ripoff, but a far worse threat to the lives of everyone in a vehicle.
You can turn the odds in your favor with by taking these life-saving steps:
- Check the dashboard airbag safety light. It should blink for a few seconds then turn off. If the light doesn’t come on or keeps blinking, you may have a faulty airbag;
- Have a certified mechanic you trust inspect the airbags of any used or salvaged vehicle you’re considering buying. Don’t try to take off the lid yourself; it might trigger an explosion;
- Use a commercial service to search the history of a used vehicle you’re considering buying. See if it has been in a crash or salvaged; and
- And once again, contact your carmaker call center and see if your airbag is bogus.
It’s time that every driver mobilizes to take the air out of airbag scams. This is one speed limit we should all break.
About the author: Jim Quiggle is director of communications for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.