Skip to main content


DATE: April 8, 1995

FROM: Philip R. Recht -- Chief Counsel, NHTSA

TO: Lee Rabie -- President, Enerco, Inc.



TEXT: Dear Mr. Rabie:

This responds to your letter of February 15, 1995, requesting information on any Federal regulations concerning recycling or remanufacturing vehicle air bags.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is authorized to issue motor vehicle safety standards that apply to the manufacture and sale of new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment. NHTSA, however, does not approve moto r vehicles or motor vehicle equipment, nor do we endorse any commercial products. Instead, each manufacturer is responsible for "self-certifying" that its products meet all applicable safety standards at the time of the product's first purchase for purp oses other than resale; i.e., the first retail sale of the product.

NHTSA has exercised its authority to establish Standard No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection (49 CFR @ 571.208). Standard No. 208 requires that many vehicles provide automatic crash protection. Vehicles equipped with automatic crash protection protect th eir occupants by means that require no action by vehicle occupants. Compliance with the automatic crash protection requirements of Standard No. 208 is determined in a dynamic crash test. That is, a vehicle must comply with specified injury criteria, as measured on a test dummy, when tested by this agency in a 30 mph barrier crash test. One type of automatic crash protection currently offered on new vehicles is air bags. A recent amendment of Standard No. 208 makes air bags mandatory in all passenger cars and light trucks by the late 1990's.

Please note that the automatic crash protection requirement applies to the performance of the vehicle as a whole, instead of setting requirements for the air bag as an individual item of equipment. This approach permits vehicle manufacturers to "tune" t he performance of the air bag to the crash pulse and other specific attributes of each of their vehicle models. However, this approach also means that the Federal standards do not specify specific performance attributes for air bags such as inflated dim ensions, actuation time, and the like.

Strictly speaking, manufacturers are not required to certify that air bags, as items of equipment, meet any motor vehicle safety standards. However, section S9 of Standard No. 208 specifies requirements for pressure vessels and explosive devices for use in air bag systems. Therefore, manufacturers of pressure vessels and explosive devices must certify that they comply with the requirements of S9 of Standard No. 208. In addition, you could not sell a recycled or remanufactured air bag with these compo nents replaced unless the new components were certified as meeting the requirements of S9.

It is unclear from your letter if the recycled or remanufactured air bags will be reinstalled in the original vehicle or if the air bags will be sold as replacement air bags for other vehicles with deployed air bags or as retrofit air bags for vehicles w hich do not have air bags as original equipment. Therefore, I will discuss these scenarios separately.

Re-installation or installation in a vehicle with a deployed air bag.

I am enclosing two letters that explain legal obligations to replace air bags which have been deployed. The first letter, dated January, 19, 1990, is to Ms. Linda L. Conrad. The second letter, dated March 4, 1993, is to Mr. Robert A. Ernst. As explain ed in those letters, Federal law does not require replacement of a deployed air bag in a used vehicle. In addition, there is no Federal law that prohibits selling a used vehicle with an air bag that is inoperable because of a previous deployment. Howev er, our agency strongly encourages dealers and repair businesses to replace deployed air bags whenever vehicles are repaired or resold, to ensure that the vehicles will continue to provide maximum crash protection for occupants. Moreover, a dealer or re pair business may be required by state law to replace a deployed air bag, or be liable for failure to do so.

Your letter asks the additional question of whether, if a deployed air bag is replaced, Federal law prohibits use of a recycled or remanufactured air bag as the replacement air bag. The answer to your question is no. As explained in the enclosed letter s, Federal law 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 "made inoperative" by another agent, such as a crash. Thus, Federal law d oes not regulate the manner in which a deployed air bag is replaced. However, state law may regulate the manner in which a deployed air bag is replaced.

I would like to emphasize that in order for a replacement air bag to provide protection to vehicle occupants, it is essential that the replacement be properly completed. For example, the entire air bag must be replaced, including such things as the cras h sensors, the inflation mechanism, and other electronic parts. Moreover, since air bags are designed for specific vehicles, taking into consideration such factors as the seats, steering column crush stroke force resistance, gauge array and location on instrument panel, location and nature of knee bolsters, and compartment acceleration responses in frontal crashes, only air bags which are designed for the vehicle in question should be used. 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.

Finally, you may wish to consult a private attorney concerning the state law implications of using recycled or remanufactured air bags for repairing automobiles, including possible tort liability.

Installation in a motor vehicle which did not originally have an air bag.

A Federal requirement that would affect a retrofit air bag is set forth in 49 U.S.C. 30122(b). That section provides that: A manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business may not knowingly make inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle . . . . in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard.

The "make inoperative" provision would prohibit a commercial business from installing an aftermarket air bag in a manner that would negatively affect the vehicle's compliance with Standard No. 208 or any other safety standard.

Finally, as a manufacturer of replacement parts, you would be subject to federal requirements concerning the recall and remedy of products with defects related to motor vehicle safety (49 U.S.C. 30118-30121).

For your information, I have enclosed a sheet for new manufacturers that identifies the basic requirements of our standards and regulations, as well as how to get copies of those standards and regulations. I hope you find this information helpful. If y ou have any other questions, please contact Mary Versailles of my staff at this address or by phone at (202) 366-2992.