Air bags latest booty sought by urban automotive pirates

May 29, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Auto burglars from New York to Los Angeles have added an explosive new item to their list of things to steal -- air bags.

Insurance industry experts and police say the national outbreak is little more than 3 months old, and although statistics are not yet available, there are plenty of word-of-mouth reports.

"It's becoming much more commonplace in urban areas throughout the country, specifically on the East and West

Coast," said Steven Goldstein, vice president of the New York-based Insurance Information Institute, a national trade group representing property and casualty insurance carriers.

The thefts for sale to unscrupulous auto repair shops were first reported in Detroit in late 1992, and in the last six months the crime has cropped up in Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis and several New Jersey cities, Mr. Goldstein said.

The air bags, which inflate rapidly to cushion the impact on the driver and passengers in head-on collisions at speeds of more than of 15 mph, were once installed solely in luxury cars. But as they began to appear as standard equipment in less expensive models, the number of thefts rose.

The market for stolen air bags seems to be expanding as well. Police believe that some professional auto thieves are now involved with body shops that want the bags at reduced rates to complete repairs on cars in which the factory-installed bag inflated. The bags work only once and cannot be reused.

Auto dismantlers buy the bags as salvage items with no NTC questions asked, reselling them to repair shops and home mechanics for about half the cost of a new bag. In the case of a Mercedes or Lexus, the replacement cost alone is about $1,200, not counting installation. New bags for other makes run $800 to $1,200.

A body shop repairman with a supply of stolen air bags can pocket the difference between what he pays the thief -- perhaps about $150 -- and the $1,000 or more that he bills an insurance company or car owner for a new bag, said Detective Mike Lewin of the Los Angeles Police Department.

The major risk for air bag thieves is that the devices are activated by a small charge of gunpowder that can be detonated static electricity.

Tom Treinen, president of Special Devices Inc., a Santa Clarita, Calif.-based maker of the explosive "initiators" that trigger air bag deployment, said the initiators can cause serious injury.

"I don't know if it would blow your arm off, but it would certainly blow a finger off if you didn't know what you were doing," he said.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va., reports that 91 percent of all 1994 vehicle models are equipped with air bags.

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