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Airbags and safety critical parts sales

Just because a part is safety critical, that shouldn't automatically make it unsuitable for re-use.
Airbag components are unquestionably safety critical, like many other things in vehicles (such as tyres, brakes, steering, suspension). In fact, one could go on to say that virtually every part in a car is safety critical, in one way or another. So where does this leave us in terms of selling ‘recycled’ safety critical parts?

Airbags have been a contentious issue right from the moment when they were first introduced into vehicles. But alongside other developments, it is believed that they have contributed to major improvements in vehicle occupant safety. In the future, it would appear that airbags will become even more significant. For example, the new Volvo V40 has a ‘bonnet’ airbag which is designed to minimise injury to pedestrians, Airbag application in volume vehicles has increased significantly since their introduction, from just a driver’s airbag in the early 1990s, to driver, passenger, front and rear seat, door, curtain and foot well airbags on some modern vehicles.

Early airbag systems were not sophisticated enough to distinguish whether there was a single or multiple occupants, and so accidents often needlessly deployed all SRS components, even though the driver may have been the only person present. In some cases, airbag deployment causes additional damage to the vehicle and hazards(eg. passenger airbags breaking the windscreen). Such is the cost of airbag systems that deployment of airbags can lead to vehicle total loss. In fact, in the early days of airbags it was not uncommon to see vehicles being stolen in order to supply airbags. Nowadays, many SRS systems have some degree of ‘intelligence’, so if only a driver is present, only those components relative to the driver will be activated which has major cost saving implications in body repairs.

It is also important to realise that airbags do not act alone – they form a ‘secondary restraint system’ – the primary restraint system being the seat belts. So rapidly are airbags deployed that the seat belts themselves also had to be modified to make sure they reacted much more quickly. This was done by adding pyrotechnic devices which activated quicker than the airbags, to avoid occupants being thrown forward during an accident and being hit by the deploying airbags.

So clearly, SRS and PRS components are safety critical, like many other things in vehicles (such as tyres, brakes, steering, suspension). In fact, one could go on to say that virtually every part in a car is safety critical, in one way or another. So where does this leave us in terms of selling ‘recycled’ safety critical parts? Where do we draw the line? Clearly it is not sensible to suggest that the sale of ‘recycled’ engines or heater fans should be banned because their failure could lead to accidents.

Unfortunatley, SRS systems are much more complicated than most other components and their electronic nature means that they cannot easily be tested. But also their very proximity to occupants (eg. right in front of the driver, on the steering wheel) coupled with their ‘explosive’ nature makes them very sensitive to sensationalist speculations. But the vehicle recycling industry needs to address the issues raised by SRS, because vehicles aren’t going to become less complicated in future – technology will ensure the opposite.

As it stands at the moment the sale and fitting of recycled safety critical parts such as airbags is not illegal in most of the world (although it is for airbags in some parts of the US). In the UK, the sale of recycled airbags is commonplace – just take a look at E-bay. But where there is a particular problem at the moment in the UK is with the ABI Code of Practice for the Disposal of Motor Salvage. This voluntary agreement states that airbags shouldn’t be sold. What this document actually does is to help drive the trade ‘underground’. Those very businesses that are best placed to capitalise on these parts are prevented from doing so, and this puts them at a competitive disadvantage to other industry players. This also prevents insurers from getting better value for their salvage. There will, of course, be issues over liability, but this is not insurmountable.

The subject of airbags is surrounded by a shroud of mystery, misinformation and sensationalism. It is time for a little clarity, objectivity and honesty. And this needs to start with a proper appraisal of all the issues relating to the safe removal, storage, testing and re-use of such safety critical items.

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