Suffering injuries from faulty air bags is a real possibility for millions of U.S. motorists, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has warned.
"If your air bag is defective, it's important to get it fixed," says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Air bags are designed to deploy during collisions to protect drivers and passengers from injuries. However, if you have a defective air bag, it can rupture and spray out metal fragments that can injure -- or even kill -- your car's occupants.
On March 19, 2015, the Associated Press reported that 10 car manufacturers have recalled over 17 million cars and trucks in the U.S. because of defective Takata driver's side frontal air bags.
Here are 5 tips to ensure your air bag is – and stays -- safe.
1. Check whether your car is subject to a recall.
If your car is on a manufacturer's recall list, you should immediately take it to your auto dealership where it can be repaired at no charge.
To check if your car is on a recall list, find your vehicle identification number (VIN) on the dashboard, near the lower driver-side corner of your car's windshield.
Your VIN also should be listed on your vehicle registration documents, and your auto insurance company should have it on record.
Once you have your VIN, go online to the NHTSA's VIN-lookup tool to find out if your vehicle has a problem. Follow the directions on the website to select the make of your car and enter the car's VIN. The website will tell you if your car has been recalled.
If you need help with recall issues, you can contact the NHTSA Vehicle Safety Hotline at 888-327-4236.
2. Take care when choosing a used car.
Even if your car isn't on a recall list, that doesn't guarantee the vehicle's air bags are safe. If you bought your car used, someone may have tampered with the air bags before the vehicle was offered for resale.
Some used cars have had their air bags removed, says Karl Newman, president of the Seattle-based NW Insurance Council trade group. That's because used air bags can be sold to repair shops and passed off as new.
According to a January report in The New York Times, federal laws don't require used-car dealers to fix cars with safety defects -- such as damaged air bags -- before selling them. Also, dealers aren't required to tell buyers when vehicles are subject to recalls.
Dan Young, a spokesman for the CARSTAR network of collision repair shops, says you should go to a dealership to get the air bags checked whenever you buy a used car.
3. Check the air bag indicator light.
Even if your car isn't on an air bag recall list, check the air bag indicator light on the dashboard to see if it's working properly. If the light is on, the vehicle needs to be serviced.
Getting a faulty air bag repaired isn't something you can delay safely, says Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association (RMIIA).
Often, "salvaged" vehicles have defective air bags, says Rod Salas, a master technician with Air Bag Tech in Los Angeles. Salvaged cars typically have been restored and put back into service after being declared total losses by auto insurance companies.
If you buy a salvaged car, ask a qualified technician to check the air bags before you drive the car. Salas says you should ask if the technician has been trained to properly install air bags.
4. Buckle up.
According to the RMIIA, air bags are effective in preventing injuries only if you're wearing a seat belt. Air bags weren't intended to be a substitute for buckling up.
Although air bags can provide protection against injuries from striking steering wheels, windshields and dashboards, they don't protect you if your car rolls over. For that protection, you need a seat belt.
If you're in a collision, your seat belt also can prevent you from being injured by hitting the air bag as it deploys.
5. Protect children by seating them properly.
Children ages 12 and younger are most safe from air bag injuries when they ride in the back seat of your vehicle, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Because air bags were designed to protect adults, they can be dangerous to children who are seated in front passenger seats. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, air bags inflate in a fraction of a second and travel up to 200 mph. The force is enough to kill a child or cause serious injuries.