Cars sold without side air bags

RALEIGH Last year, Dennis McLean bought a used 2008 Chevrolet Impala at a dealership near his home in Sanford.

"They said it was a nice car, good on gas," McLean recalled. "They didn't say it didn't have an airbag on the side door."

McLean says he didn't know he was driving around without side air bags until ABC 11 contacted him.

"I'm glad to know. I wouldn't have known," he said.

ABC 11 went car shopping with hidden cameras and discovered there are other vehicles like McLean's for sale right now. At a used car lot in the Triangle, we found three 2008 Impalas that were all listed in online advertising as having "front and rear side air bags". At the lot, the window sticker on one also said it had the air bags that are supposed to be a standard safety feature on that model.

But according to the vehicle identification number - or VIN - the airbags were never installed at the factory.

Sean Kane, with the safety consulting firm Safety Research and Strategies, says consumers could unknowingly buy one of the cars.

"You wouldn't even know to ask. You wouldn't even think to ask, 'Gee, did you delete the standard features in my car?' It's such an unusual circumstance," he offered.

Kane said it's the first time he's heard of a car maker not installing a standard safety feature.

"This is clearly unprecedented. We've never seen anything like this - where an automaker has taken out a standard safety feature out of its cars and sold them to a group of buyers knowing that this car is ultimately going to end up in consumers' hands," he said.

Crash testing done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows side air bags could increase a person's chances of surviving a severe side impact collision. These airbags helped the Impala earn a five-star crash rating.

"When you go to the government website, and they have the star rating for this vehicle, it was rated as having a high star rating for side impact because of the side airbag," Kane explained.

ABC 11's I-Team investigation shows General Motors sold 110,000 Impalas without the air bags. The space where the bag is normally installed was filled with a piece of plastic. Our research found 15 of the vehicles for sale at local car dealers. CARFAX reports on 14 of the cars shows the original owner as a "major car rental company." Subsequent research shows that company is Enterprise rental car.

Between 2006 and 2008 model years, GM offered so-called fleet buyers like Enterprise the option of removing the side air bag for a $175 discount per car. Enterprise acknowledges it bought 66,000 Impalas without the side air bags. It also bought 5,000 Chevy Cobalts and Buick Lacrosses without the side air bags.

When Enterprise was finished renting the cars, it sold them on its own used car lots. It also sold them to other dealers and at auctions.

In August, when Enterprise realized customers on its car lots bought Impalas that were sold as having side air bags, the company offered to buy back the cars for more than the blue book value. But that doesn't help people like Dennis McLean who bought Impalas at other dealers.

"They should have informed me and other people too that it didn't have an airbag," he told ABC 11.

In his research, Sean Kane says he's discovered people have been killed in side impact crashes involving Impalas built without the side air bags.

"We found five crashes with seven fatal injuries to near-sided occupants in these Impalas that had the deleted side airbag," he said.

According to federal crash data, two of those five fatal wrecks involved rental cars in Kentucky and Florida. No one knows if side impact air bags would've saved the victims.

"I think we've reached a new low where an automaker can take out a standard safety feature," Kane offered.

General Motors no longer offers the option of buying a car without standard safety features. It told ABC 11 it used to allow fleet buyers to purchase cars without standard options so it could stay competitive with other auto makers. It also said the vehicles do comply with federal motor vehicle safety standards. And it says this is a common practice among auto makers.

As we discovered on car lots across the Triangle, 2006-2008 Impalas, 2008-2009 Cobalts, and 2007 Buick Lacrosses, may not have side air bags. So if you rent one or buy one, you may end up like Dennis McLean, and may not have that protection in a crash.

So how do you tell if the car you're buying or renting has side impact air bags? It's all in the vehicle identification number - or VIN. If the seventh digit in the VIN is a 5, then the car does not have the bags.

Click here for more explanation of what to look for

While side air bags were considered standard on the Chevy Impala, they have not been legally required until now. Beginning with the 2010 model year, automakers have agreed to include side airbag protection.

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