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How dangerous air bags can find their way into used cars

Published:Wednesday | April 19, 2017 | 12:00 AM
This October 4, 2016, photo provided by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows a 2017 BMW i3 during crash safety testing.

A Nevada crash that nearly killed a young woman has exposed a hole in the government's efforts to get dangerous Takata airbag inflators off the road: There's nothing that prevents the devices from being taken from wrecked cars and reused.

Karina Dorado's trachea was punctured by shrapnel from an inflator after a relatively minor crash in Las Vegas on March 3. She was rushed to a trauma centre, where surgeons removed pieces that damaged her vocal cords. She is still being treated for neck injuries.

Dorado, 18, is among nearly 200 people injured or killed by the inflators, which can explode when the chemical propellant inside degrades. What's different about her case is how the inflator wound up in her family's 2002 Honda Accord in the first place.

Dorado's father, JosÈ, bought the car for her in March of last year so she could get to and from her job at a customer service call centre, attorneys for the family said Wednesday. The family did not know the car's history, including that it had been wrecked in Phoenix and declared a total loss by an insurance company in 2015, the attorneys said.

According to AutoCheck, a service that tracks vehicle histories, the car was given a salvage title, repaired and resold in Las Vegas last spring.

Engineers from Honda inspected Dorado's car after the crash and found that the inflator blew apart. They traced the inflator serial number to a 2001 Accord, which had been covered by a recall but never had the inflator replaced.

Honda spokesman Chris Martin said the airbag in the 2001 Accord must have been removed by a salvage yard, or it could have been stolen. Somehow, it ended up with the shop that repaired the car eventually bought by the Dorados.

It's perfectly legal under federal law for airbag assemblies or other parts subject to recall to be pulled out of wrecked cars and sold by junkyards to repair shops that may not even know the danger. No government agency monitors the transactions. In addition, no states appear to have laws against the reuse of recalled parts.

"What there should be is a programme that prevents old airbags from being recycled," said Michael Brooks, acting director of the non-profit Center for Auto Safety.

Carfax, another auto history tracking service, said it is unknown just how many cars are sold each year with salvage titles, but they number in the thousands.

At least 16 people have been killed by Takata inflators worldwide and more than 180 injured. The problem touched off the biggest automotive recall in US history, with 69 million inflators recalled. About 100 million have been recalled globally.

- AP