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Old airbags may see new use in car repairs

The insurance industry is considering permitting the reuse of certified undeployed airbags taken from recycled vehicles. The Automobile Recyclers Association said this would increase revenues for the recycling industry and simultaneously reduce repair costs for consumers, ensure that body shops have access to a key product and reduce insurance company costs by not having to purchase new OEM parts.

“We want to take quality parts off of total loss vehicles, verify them and re-introduce them into the market so that they do not go into landfills,” said Jim Watson, vice president of ABC Auto Parts. “For years we have been deploying airbags out in the field before shredding and crushing cars. Airbags are parts that can be safely reused to repair collision-damaged vehicles.”

Peter Byrne, director of Airbags Resources, said that as part of the ARA’s Airbag Protocol, there is a counter on the website that records the number of hits enquiring about recycled airbags. The Protocol is a voluntary standard concerning training, inspection protocols and record keeping.

“More than 2,218,000 inquiries have been logged since August 2007,” he said. “The reuse of OEM non-deployed airbags is already a mainstream solution to cost-effective repair. Look at our branded ARAPro airbag parts – our best alternative to new OEM parts as they allow customers to lower parts costs dramatically, while maintaining quality. The market has recognized the benefits of using OEM recycled airbags in repairs as recyclers receive an electronic inquiry for an airbag once every 20 seconds.”

Linda Pitman, secretary treasurer of Amarillo, Texas-based Dulaney Auto Parts, said that the Airbag Protocol (AB) is a safeguard to the public that recycled airbags are safe to use.

“If the public agrees to use them and the insurance companies will agree, than the re-use can become an important revenue stream for automobile recyclers,” she said. “It’s difficult sometimes to get the insurance company or person fixing the vehicle to want to notify that person that a recycled part will be used. It’s an education process all the way.”

“I’ve never heard of an instance where a consumer has rejected one of our products if they are aware that this is an alternative that you can be pretty confident about,” said Byrne, whose firm worked closely with the ARA’s Airbag Committee in developing the protocol. “Unlike other aftermarket parts where you have to inspect these parts to make sure they conform to a given standard, undeployed OEM airbags manufactured by the OEM Tier 1 suppliers already meet all federal and car company standards.

“Our job is to make sure that in the process of recycling,” he added, “that they are not harmed, damaged or impacted in any way. The protocol establishes a set of standards and procedures to make sure that the extraction of the airbag from the vehicle is done in a consistent and proper manner, that the recycler handles the airbag in a safe and appropriate manner, that the airbag is inspected in a consistent manner and that it is stored and readied for shipment in a consistent manner.”

The key element is that all these steps are documented. Furthermore, every day the ARAPro database downloads the latest NHTSA Recall file via the VIN number to determine which airbags cannot be reused.

Special equipment is not required to remove airbags, which are attached by bolts to the steering column on the driver’s side and the crossbar beam on the passenger’s side.

Last July, Watson addressed the issue of using recycled airbags at the Collision Industry Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“The Council of Motor Transportation Administrator’s study determined that it is economical and a safe alternative when proper care was taken to remove, store, catalogue, ship and install the airbag,” said Watson. “The General Accounting Office study said that recycled airbags can be a potentially safe use and an economical alternative to a new airbag as long as it is undamaged, properly handled and installed.”

In 2003, the Insurance Institute for Highway Traffic Safety identified three issues regarding recycled airbags. They are:

•They have to match the application.

•They cannot have suffered any water damage or have been submerged.

•Their use will not promote auto theft.

Watson stressed that the Airbag Protocol covers all three issues.

“We track every airbag and we have a record,” he said. “We verify who is removing it – we have proper training, regulations for storing and handling them appropriately, we are trained in hazmat shipping for all our drivers, we are using appropriate boxes for distribution, and we verify that these bags have not been submerged or part of a flooded vehicle.

“For the auto theft issue,” he added, “we believe that if there is more widespread use of the bags, then it would diminish because we would be putting quality airbags back into commerce, which would reduce the need for thefts. In the conclusion of their paper, while they stated that there are potential problems with salvaged airbags, it is a justifiable use for repair. It didn’t justify the non-use.”

“In all of the admonitions, especially from the OEM side,” said Byrne, “there has never been a study published or data from the OEMs to say why a recycled OEM airbag could not perform properly as it was designed. The publications from the insurance industry have been more middle-of-the-road because they acknowledge there are issues, but tacitly admit there is no evidence to discourage their use.”

He added that recycled airbags are matched to specific vehicle models, multiple copies of the inspection certificates are stored and that should a failure of an airbag occur, the item can be traced to the supplier.

“They always deploy as intended,” said Byrne. “Even the GM Bulletin has basically said that one of the issues that they are trying to get across is that ‘original is forever.’ We are confident our ARAPro airbags will perform as intended because they are designed to meet the OEM standards for quality, reliability, durability and safety.”

Technicians involved in airbag removal are required to take compulsory training and must score 100 percent to be certified.

“Other than the Insurance Company of British Columbia (ICBC) of Canada, we have small companies that are using them, whether they are in estimates or not,” he said. “I do sense the majors’ appreciation for the ARA’s efforts and Airbag Resources to create standards.”

Pitman agreed, stressing that education will win them over in the end. Watson recognizes that there are many competing interests regarding airbags and that education efforts will have to include body repair shops and consumers.

by Irwin Rapoport, American Recycler