Autos: The Threat of Defective Airbags

What's worse than your car's airbag going off in your face? An airbag not deploying when you have an accident. That can happen if you are driving a used car that's had its airbag improperly or fraudulently replaced.

As many as one in 25 accident-damaged cars has its airbag replaced with a stolen, salvaged or fake airbag, according to California state estimates. (They can cost as much as $3,000 new.) But there are ways to check that the previously owned "cream puff" you're driving hasn't been scammed. Use your vehicle identification number to check its airbag history free of charge at carfax.com/airbag. You can look at your airbag panel on the steering wheel or dashboard. If its color is slightly off, it might have been replaced. Most, but not all, original-equipment airbags have the initials SRS or SIR on the panel, at least on the passenger side, and the car's logo on the driver's side.

You can also get your mechanic to check it out—most deployed airbags are reinstalled properly. Then drive gently, just in case.

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