From the Desk of Mike Anderson: Post-Crash Inspections Find Multiple ‘Deformed’ but Undeployed Airbags

One shop's experience illustrates how crucial it is to follow all manufacturers' repair procedures to the letter, every time.


In earlier columns this year, I shared one shop’s story about being visited by the police each time a certain vehicle’s battery was reconnected, and another shop’s story about sunlight being magnified through rainwater on crash wrap leading to burn damage to the interior of the vehicle.

Now I want to tell you about another shop’s startling discovery during vehicle safety inspections, which I believe should be a wake-up call for every single person involved in the collision industry.

Rick’s Paint and Body is a Lexus Authorized Collision Center in Augusta, GA, and as such, repairs a lot of Lexus and Toyota vehicles. Shop owner Tyler Smith understands the post-collision repair inspections both automakers call for on many of their vehicles. The procedures for the Toyota Camry and Lexus ES 350, for example, call for airbag inspections even in non-deployment crashes. Smith said those inspections, which can be pretty intrusive, on multiple occasions recently have proven to be very important.

“It was the passenger head airbag that we found in numerous vehicles have been deformed,” Smith told me, clarifying the shop had found four such instances. “You could see on a couple of them where the brackets where they mount up underneath the dash panel were slightly tweaked, and instead of the airbag being a nice little neat package, the top of it was bulged out almost like a loaf of bread. The webbing that kind of holds it all together was stretching so much that it was starting to separate.”

A post-crash safety inspection of a vehicle found an undeployed airbag bulging to the point of starting to separate the webbing that holds it together.

Smith said none of the vehicles had related lights illuminated on the dash, nor any diagnostic trouble codes that would indicate there was any issue with the airbags. He said he made sure to check them against new replacement airbags to make sure what he was seeing wasn’t how those airbags in the vehicle should look.

Further evidence that the airbags had an issue came when a local fire department held a vehicle extraction training class at Smith’s shop. After the class, Smith said he asked if the first responders had ever seen an airbag deploy. They said they hadn’t, so Smith’s team gathered the set-up they have to safely deploy an extracted airbag. Smith said the shop does the demonstration for new employees as well, to show the force with which airbags deploy and the importance of following all automaker procedures and precautions.

But of the four deformed airbags Smith’s team discovered during its post-crash safety inspections, three of them did not deploy when hooked up for the firefighters in training.

“So I can’t say for sure, but they might not have fired if we’d left them in the vehicle and it was involved in a subsequent accident,” Smith said.

When I asked Smith what he thinks caused the issue with those airbags, he was quick to note he’s not an engineer. All the vehicles were about four to eight years old. All took mid-sized hits in the left rear quarter panel.

“We’re not talking train wrecks,” Smith said. “They obviously took a pretty good hit, but nothing major, no major structural damage. No other airbags deployed from the wrecks in the vehicles.”

He knows some airbags have what he thinks of as a two-stage deployment, where it may get charged for deployment but the sensors indicate it doesn’t need to actually deploy. He wondered if that type of first-stage deployment in some way led to the deformation, and if that may be why Toyota and Lexus call for their inspection.

Smith said his shop has done quite a few inspections on similar year, make and model vehicles and not found issues with the majority of those particular airbags, so he doesn’t think it’s an issue from the factory. But in any case, in his mind, that makes doing the inspections to find the ones that are deformed all the more important.

image4A post-crash safety inspection of a vehicle found the bracket that mounts an airbag underneath the dash panel was slightly tweaked.

Has finding those deformed bags made it any easier to convince insurance companies of the importance of the inspections? Unfortunately, Smith said it hasn’t. It doesn’t help, he said, when someone at a dealership who doesn’t know better tells the insurer the inspections aren’t necessary. In some cases, customers have had to pay for the inspections themselves.

“Like I tell insurance companies all the time, ‘I didn’t engineer these vehicles. So I have to follow the procedures from the people who did,’” Smith said. “For most of the manufacturers, it’s very cut-and-dried. Do I necessarily agree with all of it? No. But that’s not for me to agree or disagree with. If they say to stand over here and sing, ‘I’m a little teapot,’ then you stand over there and you sing,” he said, laughing.

Ladies and gentlemen, those deformed airbags found during safety inspections by Smith’s team should be all you need to understand you are playing a dangerous game with your customers’ lives and your shop’s liability when you don’t follow the safety inspections procedures laid out by the automakers. Will some -- or even most -- of the inspections turn up nothing? Maybe so. And I hear from shops that these inspections are the single biggest friction point in the industry.

But Smith’s shop is just one of a growing number of shops reporting they have uncovered some important safety issues when regularly conducting the inspections. Let me know through my assistant, Tiffany Driggers, at, if your shop uncovers something damaged you might have missed without a safety inspection.

“We’re lucky we caught them when we did,” Smith told me. “Because from what we saw, they will not necessarily perform as designed.”

Mike Anderson

Mike Anderson is a columnist for Autobody News and president of Collision Advice, a consulting company for the auto body/collision repair industry.

AkzoNobel Beta web graphic v2 600px

Shop & Product Showcase