Counterfeit air bags are a hidden threat

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Vehicle air bags, also known as supplemental restraint systems, have come a long way since they debuted in the 1970s. At that time, air bags were limited to the front and deployed the same way for every occupant and crash. While the air bags of yesteryear were valuable, they come nowhere close to the protection and sophistication of today’s air bags.

Many vehicles nowadays have 10 or more air bags strategically located throughout the vehicle cabin, such as knee, center, rear curtain, and even seatbelt air bags. In the event of a crash, sensors within the vehicle register the force and location of the collision, the position and size of the vehicle occupants, and calculates which air bags to deploy and the speed and pressure of the deployment – all in just about 30 milliseconds.

The results are nothing less than lifesaving. From 1987 to 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates nearly 45,000 lives have been saved by frontal air bags. Consumers that own air bag equipped vehicles have come to embrace the added protection and expect the air bags to work without flaw. That is why the prospect of counterfeit air bags is so alarming.

When consumers must have an air bag replaced, there is an inherent belief that the air bag installed is a genuine manufacturer’s air bag for their vehicle. In fact, consumers have no way of knowing otherwise.

Counterfeit air bags are a national and growing concern. Usually procured online by unsuspecting consumers shopping for a bargain, or by unscrupulous vehicle repair ships out to pad their profits, these air bags just don’t work. The NHTSA states that counterfeit air bags have been shown to “consistently malfunction,” from non-deployment to the expulsion of metal shrapnel during deployment.

“It’s among the most insidious forms of insurance fraud,” says Matthew Smith, Director of Government Affairs and General Counsel for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. “Phony air bags are dangerous and can kill; it’s like a time bomb on four wheels.”

However, there are ways consumers can help protect themselves and their passengers from being scammed:

  1. When turning on the ignition, look for the air bag dashboard light (check your owner’s manual if you do not know what it looks like). If the light stays on, starts flashing, or doesn’t flash on at all, your air bag system probably isn’t working.
  2. Before you purchase a used vehicle, make sure to have it inspected by a trusted, certified mechanic. Ask them to specifically check the air bags.
  3. If your vehicle is involved in a crash in which an air bag deployed, consider having the air bag replaced at an authorized car dealership repair shop.
  4. Support state legislation that criminalizes the manufacture, sale and installation of counterfeit air bags.

Alan Haskins, Vice President of Government Affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) says, “Only 17 states have adopted counterfeit air bag laws, but the rest are starting to catch-up. We, along with industry partners, are advocating for counterfeit air bag laws in all 50 states, and just this year alone the NICB is tracking and engaged in counterfeit air bag bills in seven states.”

For more information on how to protect yourself as a consumer, visit the web pages on air bag scams of the National Insurance Crime Bureau or the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.

State elected officials or staff interested in strengthening their counterfeit air bag laws should contact NICB’s government affairs department at GovernmentAffairs@nicb.org or 800-447-6282.

Towing oversight legislation needed to protect consumers from wreck chasers

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Automobile accidents are a harrowing experience. In the immediate aftermath of an accident, a driver may be dealing with missing work or an appointment, distressed children, potential liability issues and traffic violations, other motorists trying to circumvent the wreck, and even injuries. This high-stress situation creates the perfect opportunity for an unscrupulous towing company take advantage of a consumer.

This often comes in the form of overzealous solicitation, excessive fees, and shady business practices that delay or make it difficult for owners to retrieve their vehicles.

Over the past few years, responding to these rogue practices, there has been an uptick in towing-reform legislation by states and municipalities, such as Arizona, California, and Missouri. In July 2018, the National Council of Insurance Legislators (NCOIL) adopted model towing legislation that included a number of consumer protections:

Licensing or registration: State or municipal licensing of towers can help authorities know who is towing vehicles, set minimum standards, and hold bad actors accountable.

Restricting solicitation at accident scenes: Often, dishonest towers will listen to police scanners and attempt to swoop onto an accident scene without being called. Motorists assume law enforcement called the tower and consent to the tow without the benefit of consulting a tow rotation list or their insurer.

Requiring a written estimate of charges prior to towing: Requiring towers to provide, prior to towing, a written estimate is among the best protections government can extend to consumers. Without a written estimate, some towers have been known to attempt to charge motorists $1,000 for a few-mile tow and hold the car hostage (with incurring storage fees) until it is paid.

Fair fees: Without setting towing charges, legislators should require fees be rational and prohibit the add-on of vague fees, such as transfer, gasoline, gate fees, or excessive administrative fees.

Reasonable access: Towers should be required to store towed vehicles at a conspicuous, known location, and consumers should have the right to recover, inspect, or retrieve personal items from their vehicle during normal business hours. Mandating reasonable access helps prevent towers from racking-up storage fees by limiting access.

Tim Lynch, Senior Director of Government Affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) said NCOIL’s towing model was the culmination of a two-year effort among insurance companies and their trade groups, NICB, state lawmakers, and towing interests. “Robust laws combined with swift enforcement are needed to make these protections truly meaningful,” Lynch said.

Jack Quinn, NICB Senior Special Agent and former Philadelphia police officer has been on the scene of hundreds of accidents. He says he has seen a much-improved towing climate since Philadelphia adopted in 2017 a towing ordinance that established a tow rotation list. “The tow list has resulted in a reduction of tow-abuse, and provides consumers peace of mind,” Quinn says.

Elected officials or staff interested in strengthening their consumer protections related to accident scene tows should contact NICB’s government affairs department at GovernmentAffairs@nicb.org or 800-447-6282.