Vehicles in which air bags have been deployed are sometimes refurbished with false or faulty replacements and resold to unsuspecting customers, the Automotive Occupant Restraints Council said today.

Used vehicles with collision or flood damage have been found with rags, towels, cans or other materials stuffed in their air bag units, the council said. In addition, some used cars have remanufactured air bags, which have been made from parts from different vehicles and are considered inferior to factory air bags.

‘Consumers should be aware that some disreputable repair facilities around the nation are installing false air bags in vehicles after original air bags have been deployed and need to be replaced,’ the council, a group of manufacturers of seat belts and air bags, said in a statement.

This ‘disturbing trend,’ the council said, ‘could be deadly.’

The extent of the problem is unclear. Industry experts and law enforcement officials estimate that thousands of vehicles with false or remanufactured air bags are on the road in North America. Some say the total number may be much higher. Last year, the council said, two deaths were linked to defective or remanufactured air bags.

Few states require air bags to be replaced in vehicles after they have been deployed, safety experts said. But it is illegal in some states to sell used vehicles under the pretense that they are equipped with air bags and other safety features, when they are missing, safety experts said.

‘If you are buying a used car, and it is presented as having an air bag and it doesn’t, the misrepresentation is fraud,’ Tim Hurd, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said.

In addition to laws regulating fraud, 14 states, including Connecticut, have legislation barring false or remanufactured air bags. Penalties for deceptive installation practices range from several hundred dollars in fines to a year in jail, the council said.

New York and Pennsylvania are considering air bag legislation, the council said.

Vehicles that have been declared ‘total losses’ after a collision are especially vulnerable to air bag deception, the council said.

When repair costs exceed the value of cars, insurance companies often put them up for auction. Salvage companies that repair and resell vehicles sometimes seek cars and trucks in which the air bags have been deployed, the council said, then sell the repaired vehicles to buyers who are charged for safety features that were not installed.

State inspections can fail to detect false or remanufactured air bags, industry experts said, and in most cases, drivers are unaware of the faulty air bags until they fail to deploy in a crash.

The council recommends that owners of used vehicles check to see whether their vehicles have a functioning air bag.

For one, vehicles with factory-installed air bags are equipped with dashboard lights to warn drivers when air bags are malfunctioning. After a vehicle is started, the warning lights are designed to stay illuminated four to seven seconds. If a warning light does not illuminate, flashes or stays on for more than seven seconds, the air bags may be malfunctioning, experts said. Discoloration, uneven wear, glue drops or rips on air bag covers also might indicate air bag tampering, the council said.

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