Senate gives key approval to counterfeit airbag bill

This screen grab from a video by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration shows the dangers of a counterfeit airbag.

COLUMBIA — A bill that would make it a felony for South Carolinians to buy, sell or install defective car airbags received key approval by the Senate on Thursday.

The bill is meant to protect unsuspecting and usually lower-income motorists who go to an unscrupulous repair shop for a replacement airbag.

Reports have surfaced of some shop owners ordering an airbag from the automaker or original equipment manufacturer just to submit an insurance claim. They return the order for cash and drivers get a faulty airbag unit, typically manufactured in China.

The Senate bill penalizes someone who knowingly or intentionally imports, manufactures, sells or installs counterfeit airbags with jail time and fines. Those whose actions result in great bodily harm or death would face increased penalties. However, installers, convicted of a first offense, will only be charged with a misdemeanor and fined at the court’s discretion. Penalties can include imprisonment of up to a year.

“In the Charleston area, through the Takata recall, we pulled out some airbags and when we pulled it, there is a trash bag in it,” Craig Orlan, a state government relations analyst with Honda North America, said in a hearing earlier this month.

“We’ve pulled out hundreds of these across the country and are replacing them while realizing the problem is much more widespread than we previously thought.”

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Under federal trademark law, officials are limited to prosecuting counterfeiters only when fake logos are attached to airbags. Orlan said a majority of legitimate airbags, including passenger and side-impact airbags, do not contain trademarks, creating a loophole for fakes. Counterfeiters are increasingly aware of the loophole and adapting so that when raids occur, authorities can’t even confiscate the fake airbags in some situations.

“We want to give the federal authorities the ability to confiscate these aibags,” Orlan said.

Similar legislation has passed in 11 other states, and North Carolina is debating a similar bill.

The bill requires one more Senate vote before moving to the House. Bills that are not approved by either chamber by May 1 are essentially dead for the year.