Press Releases - Bootleggers Take Air Out Of Driver Safety

The Ottawa Citizen. Monday, March 30, 1998
By Paul McKay. Associated Press.
Rod Maclovor, for The Ottawa Citizen.

Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa Citizen.
Author: Paul Mc Kay staff writer.

Some rebuilt airbags are made with stolen mismatched parts. They're potentially lethal, Paul Mckay.

Brad Bunker, a Toronto-based airbag diagnostician, says unscrupulous people who rebuild airbags by mixing parts from different systems are endangering lives. His company tests and installs 10,000 replacement units each year. The bags above are used.

B Bootleg airbags -- including some made from untested "mix and match" parts that will likely fail in a collision -- are being sold in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes.

Experts warn these bootleg airbags may imperil the lives of unsuspecting vehicle drivers and passengers.

They are installed by unscrupulous garages, without the car owner's knowledge, as replacements for deployed malfunctioning airbags.

The bootleg airbags typically sell for less than half the price that body/repair shops pay for new, factory-built units. Some components come from stolen vehicles, clandestine chop shops and wrecking yards. Others are hybrids made from deployed airbags and parts shipped by covert suppliers.

As part of a Citizen investigation, two airbag units were obtained from a Quebec company that has sold 3,000"rebuilt" airbags in the past two years. It operates from a nondescript basement apartment in Victoriaville and an industrial park near Quebec City, under the company names National Airbag Inc. and Demers Airbags.

Both units were examined by experts for the Citizen. Concealed behind re-glued and repainted vinyl covers were spliced wires and bootleg parts. All warning and identification labels had been stripped.

To an untrained eye, the bogus bags are identical to factory-built units.

The experts say one is a 1995 Pontiac Bonneville driver-side airbag shell fitted with a 1996 Ford Taurus explosive charge and Ford Taurus bag. The other is a 1995 Honda Accord airbag shell fitted with the explosive charge and bag from a 1990 Chrysler Minivan

"These are risking a lot of people's lives," says Brad Bunker, a Toronto-based airbag diagnostician. His company tests and installs 10,000 replacement units each year on behalf of insurance companies.

"This is Ford guts in a Pontiac shell. We don't know how this bag would react. Would it go off normally?Would it go off at all? The Ford charge isn't defective. It would explode. Whether the deployment of the bag would go right -- it's hard to say. It could be too strong. Or it (the bag) might not leave.

"It will be inflating along the specifications of a Taurus, not a Pontiac Bonneville. If the cabin size in the Taurus is a little bit larger, it will come out with more snap than in a Bonneville. It's not designed for that car. It shouldn't be in there."

"The Ontario auto insurance industry does not approve used or after-market airbags. It's a great big liability issue."

Ken Boulton,
Senior Executive, Dominion of Canada

Peter Riding, a repair technician at Dan Donnelly Ford in Ottawa, examined the same Pontiac/Ford hybrid.

"This is most deadly. All the igniters (explosive charges) for different companies are different. Strength,the way the bag is packed, the size of the bag, and the electrical resistance of the igniter -- they are all different So you have to have everything matched perfectly for it to work properly."

The technical staff of Tom Donnelly, president of Sunrise Pontiac-Buick-GMC in Ottawa, agreed the "mix and match" Pontiac unit was potentially lethal.

"Somebody who has a (bootleg) airbag installed in their car probably thinks they've got a factory built airbag," says Mr. Donnelly. "But if there's a collision, it might not go off. It might go off too early. It might go off too late. It might be from a Cadillac, but (put in) a small car where it could hurt somebody instead of doing any good.

"If you have an airbag in a car, it's there to save lives. You take a black market one that's not from the factory, that's not installed by somebody that's got the right training -- it's a potential weapon instead of something that's going to save your life."

Claude Begin and Stephane Demers, the co-owners of the Quebec company that ships 150 reassembled airbags per month,deny their airbags have "mix and match" components.

"That would probably be dangerous to the person in that car. We would never do something like that," Mr. Begin told the Citizen."And I don't think the (airbag) computer would accept something like that. There's a microprocessor that recognizes what kind of inflator (charge) there is in the airbag. Every car maker has their special code (in the microprocessor).That communicates with the inflator."

Mr. Bunker disputes that claim. He says the microprocessor only tests the electrical resistance in the airbag system -- not whether the proper explosive charge or bag is installed. And, he adds, virtually all airbag systems have the same resistance.

The National/Demers owners say their components are identical to those used by companies that manufacture airbags under exclusive license to major U.S. car makers such as Ford, GM and Honda. They would not disclose their suppliers, or provide invoices verifying those component purchases.

"We won't tell. We don't want to mention their name because they are under a secret procedure -- they have contracts with major car makers,"Mr. Begin, 25, told the Citizen. "It's like a little secret between them and us. We won't tell that to newspapers."

Mr. Begin was interviewed at the company's fledgling assembly shop near Quebec City. It houses sparse office space, shelves holding up to 1,000 assorted airbag assemblies, a primitive paint booth, and one wooden work bench where three employees -- whom Mr. Begin describes as "artists"--glue and reassemble airbags. The company declined to allow photographs of the assembly area.

He told the Citizen that car owners are informed "every time" that reassembled National/Demers airbags are installed. But not by his company.

"That's the body shop's business. We put it on the bill that it's a rebuilt airbag. It's the responsibility of the body shop to tell that to its clients."

The invoice on the National airbag purchased by the Citizen made no reference to reassembled components.

Most airbags for North American vehicles are made by two U.S. manufacturers, TRW Inc. in Tennessee and Breed Technologies of Florida. For safety reasons, they supply only complete airbag systems to major car makers. TRW and Breed have proprietary rights to the airbag designs and components. Their license agreements prohibit sales of airbag components to rival parts suppliers or repair garages.

The car makers such as Ford, GM and Honda do not sell or ship individual airbag components to any car makers, parts distributors or repair garages.

They ship only complete, factory-built airbag packages. Components from different vehicle models are never assembled together.

Honda Canada officials say they are "extremely alarmed" to find the Citizen had obtained a 1995 Honda airbag fitted with 1990 Chrysler Minivan parts.

"I am very concerned. Our (airbag) designs are intended specifically for each vehicle," says Glen Bryksaw, director of auto compliance for Honda Canada. "Every vehicle manufacturer designs the airbag, the inflator output, the size of the vent holes, for the specific vehicle. In fact, even a two-door model versus a four-door model of the same platform has a different bag -- totally.

"We don't authorize or recommend "recycled" bags -- even ones from another identical make and model being transferred over. Primarily the issues boil down to safety. We can't make assurances that bag is going to function correctly in another vehicle."

Mr. Bryksaw says Honda ships only factory-built airbag replacement units, and never sells component parts to any company -- including Honda dealerships. It has not authorized any company to install or sell Honda airbag components.

"I have no idea how they (National/Demers) would do that legally. Absolutely not. Our policy is very, very strict."

The U.S. companies that supply airbags to car makers say they have never shipped component parts to reassemblers, including National or Demers.

"They (airbags) are model and vehicle specific. Any time you get outside that realm, you're basically dealing with a safety product that is untested," says Breed manager Bob Stark. "Each of the inflators has different levels of(explosive) charge, as far as how aggressively they open. They're all designed as a system, with the bag -- how it's folded, how it comes out of the cover, and event the crash sensing mechanisms. So when you start mixing and matching these things, you have at best an unknown combination, and at worst a dangerous combination."

"Air bag components are tuned for specific cars, and their crash characteristics," says TRW spokesman Gary Klasen. "To have the safest vehicle, there should not be a"mixing and matching" of any kind of components that go into the airbag system. The airbag, and the testing, and the parts are designed for individual vehicles. The airbags and the parts -- the system -- are designed for the individual make and model of that car. That is the way to make it safe."

Mr. Begin maintains his rebuilt airbags are safe because the components are made by the same suppliers that supply major car makers.

"They are the same guys. But they would never tell you that. They would never tell newspapers they are selling parts to us. They would never tell anybody. But we have a contract with them, and we have to protect them. General Motors would never let them sell airbag parts to anybody (else)."

Mr. Begin says the three experts who examined the National airbags obtained by the Citizen mistakenly"guessed" that the components were mismatched.

"It is impossible to see. Nobody can tell. Even if I tried myself, I wouldn't be able to. The computer would never accept the (mismatched) airbag in the car. If the computer accepts it, then it's going to be good. ... You have to measure the quantity of the explosive. It's the only way. They are guessing."

But if no one can visually tell if the right detonator has been shipped, how does Mr. Begin know his supplier -- which is covertly supplying bootleg parts -- hasn't shipped the wrong explosive charge to National?

"That's their responsibility. They will certify it will be a good inflator (explosive charge) for that airbag. We trust them. This guy has no interest to sell me the wrong part. He's risking his reputation. If I ever found out he was trying to f--- me, I could sue him."

Reprinted with permission
from the Ottawa Citizen.
Author: Paul Mc Kay
Staff Writer.
Rod Maclovor
The Ottawa Citizen

Air bag detonators can look alike, but unless a replacement is identical to the original, it can be hazardous to use it, exerts says.

Mr. Begin declined to provide the Citizen with copies of that certification from his unidentified parts supplier. "No. We can't do that. It contains the name of the company."

Mike Kido, an official with the Ralph Nader-founded Centre for Public Safety in Washington, says "mix and match" airbags are potentially lethal.

"The airbag systems are designed to work with the crash characteristics of that vehicle -- the crash pulse. The crash pulse is like the signature of each vehicle. The bag is designed to go off at a certain time, based on that crash pulse. If you've got a different set up in there, you're going to get an airbag that doesn't go off when it's supposed to. Or, when it does go off, it's not providing as much protection as it should."

Terry Fox, the Canadian Automobile Association's manager of legal affairs, says selling "mix and match" airbags is reprehensible.

"There is no way that something like that should ever be installed in a car. The explosive force could probably knock somebody's head off.

"Companies which do that should be put out of business forthwith. They are a real danger to the general public.

"Mr. Begin told the Citizen that National/Demers sells 90 per cent of its rebuilt airbags to body shops, and about half those installations are paid for under insurance claims. However,Ontario auto insurers won't approve or pay for such installations.

"The Ontario auto insurance industry does not approve used or after- market airbags. It's a great big liability issue," says Ken Boulton, a senior executive with Dominion of Canadian Insurance

"Our position is: original equipment or nothing. Those original equipment manufacturers have made so many changes to the airbags. They've de-powered the airbags for certain models. You might get a high-powered one going back into a vehicle that's supposed to be lower powered."

The "mix and match" airbags would never be approved for insurance claims in British Columbia, says David Rhodes, an executive with the province's public auto insurer, ICBC.

"We would never approve a "mix and match" because the safety and security of the person is at stake. There would be tremendous liability if we were aware of something of that nature -- and actually condoned it.

"We would not pay a claim of that nature. We have gone through all the safety and security issues on airbags. We would never do that, knowingly."

The bootleg airbag business thrives because of gaps in Canadian and U.S. vehicle safety laws, which focus only on the performance of airbag systems in new vehicles. There are no federal laws in either country making testing of replacement airbags mandatory. In Ontario, vehicle safety certification standards for cars being resold do not require inspections of airbag systems.

The bootleg trade is driven by the 50-per-cent price spread between the cost of new, factory-built airbags and reassembled units Often, the insurance company ends up paying the full price -- because a cut-rate bag is covertly installed. The body shops keep the split. To mask the scam, the body shops order a new factory-built airbag, then return it later for future credit. They falsely claim the "new" airbag cost from the insurance company.

To combat this scam, ICBC pays insurance claims only on installations of new, factory-built airbag replacements. It also audits repair shops for airbags returned to distributors for credit. This has cut airbag fraud, the clandestine use of "mix and match" airbags and airbag theft in B.C.

"They have to supply invoices to us about where they purchased the product from. That's part of our security process," says Mr. Rhodes. "That's a key. We audit the invoices. If repair shops keep returning parts, we want to know what the hell is going on." Mr. Begin and Mr. Demers say they are confident Quebec auto insurers will soon endorse their reassembled airbags.

"We had a meeting with 10 of the biggest insurance companies in Canada. They are going to go with us."

They also say they are confident their company can expand into the U.S. airbag market, but concede they face potential civil lawsuits over trade copyrights and contract infringement. They acknowledge they have no license agreement in the U.S. or Canada to sell airbags of major car makers such as Ford, Chrysler, GM or Honda.

They deny any of the components used in National or Demers airbags are knowingly obtained from stolen sources.

"There are body shops in Montreal that only put stolen airbags in their cars. I'm not going to name names. I don't want to get shot," says Mr. Begin. "We get calls to "wash" stolen airbags. We refuse. They're still more expensive than what I pay to rebuild an airbag. So I'm not going to do it. They are competitors. I don't want to deal with them."

There is no evidence the National or Demers airbags are made from stolen parts.

A Deadly Combination

Air bags are precision-controlled safety devices. They depend on crash sensors and electronic "trigger" circuits that must work in less than one-30th of a second. A typical airbag inflates as fast as 320 km/h. It is designed and tested to buffer an unbelted human body weighing up to 175 pounds. That body will exert a force of nearly one ton in a 50 km/h crash.

The airbag systems have three critical components: the detecting sensor and firing circuits; the chemical-explosive "charge" canister, which propels the airbag, and the airbag itself. All three are designed and tested by manufacturers to work in unison, and checked by U.S. and Canadian federal transport authorities.

The electronic circuits ensure proper timing. The charge is set to ensure the proper speed and force of the airbag. The bag is sized to fit the cabin space of the vehicle. Stolen and reassembled airbag systems are not tested before they are installed as replacements. Often, the explosive charges and bags from different makes and models are mixed.

Industry experts and police say car owners who need airbag replacements should always demand proof that new, factory-built airbag systems are being used. They can insist on seeing invoices and shipping receipts, and insist that the repair shop assume liability -- in writing -- if used or reassembled units are installed.