Ms. Melba J. Collins
15614 Oakcrest Ln.
Little Rock, AR 72206
Dear Ms. Collins:
This responds to your letter to Rodney Slater, the Secretary of Transportation, asking whether it is legal to install "used" air bags in a vehicle. You wrote that after the air bag in your vehicle deployed, it was replaced with a used air bag. It is not clear from your letter what the condition of the air bag was when it was salvaged from another vehicle. Secretary Slater has asked this office to address your concerns.
By way of background information, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is authorized under Title 49, Chapter 301 of the U.S. Code (Motor Vehicle Safety) (Safety Act) to issue Federal motor vehicle safety standards that apply to the manufacture and sale of new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment. One of the standards established by NHTSA, Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection (49 CFR 571.208), requires air bags be installed in cars and light trucks.
Your letter asks whether, when a deployed air bag is replaced, Federal law prohibits the use of a salvaged air bag as the replacement air bag. The answer to your question is no. The Safety Act does not require a manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or repair business to return a vehicle to compliance with a standard if a device or element of design has been "rendered inoperative" by another agent, such as a crash. Thus, Federal law does not require that deployed air bags be replaced or regulate the manner in which such air bags are replaced. However, some States may have requirements applicable to such replacements.
In order for a replacement air bag to provide protection to vehicle occupants, it is essential that the replacement be properly completed. The repair should be performed according to the procedures specified by the vehicle manufacturer. This may require replacement of system components in addition to the air bag inflator module such as crash sensors, wiring and other electronic components as specified by the manufacturer. As stated above, the repair or replacement of an air bag system is not addressed by federal regulations; however, manufacturers and/or insurance carriers may have policies addressing the use of salvage parts in the repair of crash vehicles. Finally, after the air bags are replaced, it is important that the air bag readiness indicator be in good working order to alert the occupants of any future malfunction of the air bag system.
While great care must be taken in any air bag replacement, the use of a salvaged air bag raises additional safety issues. An air bag may be rendered inoperable, for example, by damage in a low-speed crash, even if it has not been deployed. Likewise, even if the vehicle from which the air bag was removed had not been in a crash, the way in which the salvaged air bag was removed from the vehicle could affect how the air bag will perform in a crash. We would urge you to contact the vehicle or air bag manufacturer to determine whether and how a salvaged air bag could be inspected or tested to ensure that it is fully operable.
Finally, you may wish to consult a private attorney concerning the state law implications of using salvaged air bags to repair automobiles, including possible tort liability.
I hope you find this information helpful. If you have any other questions, please contact Rebecca MacPherson of my staff at this address or by phone at (202) 366-2992.
Frank Seales, Jr.