• Some body shops might use counterfeit airbags.
  • Thousands could be in cars nationwide.
  • NHTSA advises drivers to call automakers, get inspections.

The federal government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is warning US car owners about the dangers of replacement airbags. The government agency recently announced that counterfeit airbags might have been installed in thousands of vehicles repaired by body shops, and further revealed that these imitation airbags could inflate incorrectly and lead to injury or death.

According to NHTSA, counterfeit airbags are only a concern for drivers with vehicles fixed in the last three years by repair shops unaffiliated with new car dealerships. Such shops might have replaced manufacturer airbags with knockoffs, primarily manufactured in China, which could fail to inflate or inflate improperly. Videos from a NHTSA test of a counterfeit airbag show an incorrect inflation where shrapnel from the steering wheel flies towards the crash test dummy, hitting it in the face and chest.

"We want consumers to be immediately aware of this problem and to review our safety information to see if their vehicle could be in need of inspection," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a statement.

While NHTSA says only around 0.1 percent of vehicles on the road are likely affected by this issue, tens of thousands of cars nationwide could be saddled with defective airbags. Worst of all, the potential damage isn't limited to specific makes and models of vehicles, but rather dozens of popular cars like the Honda Civic and Accord; Toyota Camry and Sienna; Mazda3; Hyundai Elantra; Chevrolet Cruze; and BMW 3 and 5 Series.

For car owners whose vehicles were recently repaired by body shops, or drivers who recently purchased a used car that potentially had repair work done in the last few years, NHTSA has created a full list of automaker call centers which can help vehicle owners determine whether their airbags are counterfeit. Visit NHTSA's website for more information.

Shoppers interested in a used car might also consider contacting a call center, though we recommend potential buyers run a vehicle history report using CARFAX, AutoCheck or a similar service to check for accident history. If a previous accident is found, it's likely a good idea for drivers to take the vehicle to a dealership or trusted mechanic for inspection.

The same advice is also true for vehicle owners concerned about counterfeit airbags--even if they contact the call centers for help. That's because NHTSA says imitation airbags often carry automaker logos and part numbers that are nearly identical to certified replacement parts produced by a vehicle manufacturer. To find out for sure whether an airbag is genuine, drivers may have to visit dealership service departments for an inspection, which could cost $100 or more in some cases.

While that figure might sound steep, the peace of mind it will bring is likely worth the cost--and it could save thousands of dollars in medical expenses and other costs if unsafe replacement airbags deploy in a collision.

What it means to you: If you're unsure whether your airbags are authentic, considering calling an automaker call center or visiting a dealer to find out for sure.

Equifax and CARFAX both provide services to AutoTrader.com customers

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Jeffrey Archer is fortunate to have turned a passion for cars into a career. His wide-ranging automotive experience includes work for automakers and dealers in addition to covering the news. When not writing, he spends his time searching for unique cars on AutoTrader.com.

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