WASHINGTON -- If you're in a serious collision, your car's airbag could save your life. Or maybe not.
Thegovernment has issued a public warning that millions of vehicles that have undergone repairs after a serious crash could pose severe safety risks due to the use of counterfeit replacement airbags.
The government estimates that "tens of thousands of counterfeit air bags" are now unknowingly in use in American automobiles.
"We want consumers to be immediately aware of this problem and to review our safety information to see if their vehicle could be in need of inspection," said a statement by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood issued ahead of today's formal announcement.
Counterfeit components have been a plague on the auto industry for decades and the list of affected parts is a large one, covering just about everything one might find in an automobile, from sheet metal to lug nuts. But some fake parts can prove particularly dangerous - such as airbags that either won't deploy or might improperly inflate during a crash.
"Air bags in particular play a central role in keeping drivers and passengers safe in the event of a crash," said Administrator David Strickland of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Each of a vehicle's airbags is designed to operate in a specific way and may inflate to varying degrees depending on the severity of a crash. The fakes that the government is warning about likely will not function properly if they work at all.
Recent tests of 11 fakes found that the majority either failed to work or inflated improperly and some actually threw shrapnel as they inflated.
NHTSA says that it believes the vast majority of replacement parts are genuine and that "this issue affects less than 0.1 percent of the U.S. vehicle fleet."
The challenge will be to find the affected vehicles. The government's automotive safety agency has released a list of 100 models most at risk, a mix of Detroit, Japanese and European models including such mainstays as the Ford Focus, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Jetta.
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The counterfeit airbag issue reportedly only involves vehicles that have been repaired within the last three years, and does not involve either original factory equipment nor repairs made by certified new car dealership repair shops.
Those who have had their vehicles repaired by independent service shops may be at risk. And the government is warning that consumers who might have tried to purchase replacement airbags through the Internet may be at particular risk.
Vendors have been known to offer counterfeit bags for as little as $50 while factory originals may cost as much as $1,000.
The government has been investigating the problem for a number of years and intercepted a shipment of 68 counterfeit bags heading to an address in Chattanooga, Tenn., in September 2008. They were identified as replacements for Audi, BMW, Lexus and Toyota vehicles.
Last February, Chinese businessman Dai Zhensong pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced to 37 months in jail in connection with that scam. He was one of three owners of Guangzhou Global Auto Parts International Group, based in Guangzhou, China, which the government claimed in a court filing "specializes in the production of counterfeit air bags."
Another 1,163 fakes were intercepted during an August raid in North Carolina conducted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Automakers, trade groups and insurance organizations have been increasingly vigilant in trying to stamp out the problem of fake auto parts. Actions by General Motors alone resulted in the seizure of $250 million in counterfeits since 1985. Meanwhile, the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association estimates as much as $45 billion in business could be lost to counterfeits worldwide.
In some instances, the problem may just result in cosmetic issues - a fender that doesn't quite meet factory spec shape, for example. But fake oil filters can cause engine failures. And the government is warning counterfeit airbags could lead to injuries or death.
The government will warn owners of vehicles on the list who have had airbags replaced after a crash to go to a certified dealer to have the devices checked. Such inspections, the government says, could cost as much as $100 as they would not be considered part of a vehicle's warranty.
NHTSA warns that the initial list of vehicles could "evolve over time," as it learns more about the problem. And the number of fakes in use on U.S. roads could prove higher than initially reported.
The initial "At Risk" list includes:
2006-09 A3, A4, A6, A8, Q5, Q7
2007-11 X5, E70, E60, E61
2008-10 5-series, 528i, 535i
2004-07 5-Series, 525i, 530, 535, E60, E61
2007-11 E90, E91
E92, E93 (unspecified years)
2007-11 X5, E70
2004-07 525i, 530, 535
Genesis (unspecified years)
Sonata (unspecified years)
2007-11 G35, EX35
2012 Range Rover Evoque
2006-11IS250, IS350, IS-F
ES350 (unspecified years)
2004 Mazda 3
2010-12 Mazda 3
2009-11 C, GLK
2010-11 E350, E550
2009-10 GL, ML
Outlander (unspecified years)
Altima (unspecified years)
2009-11 Corolla, Matrix
2003-10 Land Cruiser
XC60, XC70 (unspecified years)
V70, S60, S80 (unspecified years)