Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2000   by Auto Service World

BODYSHOP NEWS: Recycled Air Bag Battle Continues, Quotes B.C. Findings

It may be a battle taking place largely in the U.S., but that hasn’t stopped British Columbia’s experience from being drawn into the recycled air bag discussion.

In late June, the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA) and the Automotive Occupant Restraints Council (AORC) held a press conference in Washington, D.C. regarding used air bags. Both groups are in agreement on some points, but have found themselves on opposite ends of the argument regarding the use of recycled air bags. The ARA says the AORC misleads the public when it comes to the safety of recycled air bags, saying that research by the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia supports the option as safe.

The ARA represents vehicle dismantlers across North America, which serve as the source for undeployed air bags. The AORC is a nonprofit organization representing domestic and foreign manufacturers and suppliers of automotive air bags, safety belts and seating systems. Both groups are based in the U.S.

The use of recycled air bags in collision repair has split the collision repair industry, with some organizations in favor of their use while others continue to raise concerns about their viability as a safe cost-saving measure. In addition, due to the high cost of new air bags, there is the danger that some vehicles are being repaired without having air bags replaced at all.

The AORC, while it is in agreement with the ARA on a number of points regarding air bags–that they should not be remanufactured, and that they should be disposed of properly when damaged–disagrees on the singular point that an undeployed air bag salvaged from a vehicle should be used in repairs.

The Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, the government-run insurance body in that province, stated that independent testing showed that recycled air bags were “equal to OEM replacements in reliability, and performance.” ARA also commissioned similar safety tests on recycled, undeployed OEM air bag modules. “These tests only reinforced what we already suspected in regards to recycled air bag safety. Hopefully, it assures consumers as well,” said Bill Steinkuller, executive vice president of ARA.

The ARA supports the use of undeployed, recycled OEM air bags as viable, economical and safe alternatives to the use of new, more costly OEM air bags when properly evaluated, handled, shipped and professionally installed. “We believe this is a cost effective option for the consumer,” said Steinkuller, “but more importantly we also believe that, based on research, this is a perfectly safe alternative as well.”

The ARA says that even new air bags do fail sometimes, but that a more important issue is the non-replacement of air bags–whether with or without the knowledge of the car owner–due to cost. The non-replacement issue is a critical one for George Kirchoff, president of AORC, as well. He says that there is an undeniable British Columbia connection here too: after a fatal car crash in Coquitlam, B.C., police discovered that the car’s air bag had been removed and replaced with foam rubber.

“That’s the tragic result of doing that,” says Kirchoff. “We’re very much opposed to doing that.” Kirchoff says that the reason the used air bag issue is coming to the forefront of discussions is that the first mass-appeal vehicles with air bags hit the market in 1990, from Chrysler, and those vehicles are now entering the salvage market in great numbers. He says, too, that the remanufacturing of air bags, sometimes involving the assembly of various pieces of different air bags to make a unit fit, can not guarantee that the proper performance will be maintained.

“The last point, where we have the difficulty with the ARA, is that we are opposed to the use of used airbags and seatbelts. In the seatbelt’s case, if the car has been in an accident or (exposed to the elements), it may not hold in another crash. Were concerned that when you take an airbag out of a vehicle, some units may fit various vehicles (but may not perform properly). The second point is that it may have also undergone some type of environmental effects.”

He says that even in ARA-sponsored tests, a few air bags were slow to react.

“Are there going to be a lot of them? Probably not.” But, he adds, even that small risk isn’t worth taking. Rather than reusing them, the AORC would like to see air bags treated as hazardous waste (they do contain dangerous chemicals and can be harmful to workers if they deploy unexpectedly) and incinerated.

The ARA says that this issue is one that affects consumers greatly, not only financially, but from a safety standpoint as well. ARA says that it hopes that AORC comes to accept the fact that when properly handled, transported, and installed, undeployed and recycled OEM air bags are appropriate and safe for use in vehicles.

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