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 a few 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 thefts have popped up in Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis and several New Jersey cities, Goldstein said.
"There are just no statistics available yet because it's a relatively new crime," Goldstein said.
Throughout Southern California, from Long Beach to Santa Clarita, thieves are stealing the safety devices, which can cost up to $1,200, from cars parked in driveways, parking lots and even auto dealerships, police say.
In Ventura County, thieves in search of air bags have robbed the Thousand Oaks Auto Mall twice in the last two months, stealing between eight and 10 of the devices during each robbery, authorities said.
"It seems to be a new trend that's developing," said Ventura County Sheriff's Sgt. Jerry Weaver.
However, the trend apparently has not yet reached parts of west Ventura County. Authorities in Oxnard and Ventura said they could not recall any instances of air bags being stolen from dealerships or private owners.
Thieves also took about 15 air bags from cars at two auto dealerships in the west San Fernando Valley over the last four months, authorities said.
"It's exploded," said LAPD Detective Mike Lewin, describing the popularity among car thieves. "Six months ago you didn't even hear about it. Now they're going through the roof," he said.
Auto theft detectives in the Van Nuys and North Hollywood divisions report more than a dozen such thefts in the past month.
The air bags, which inflate rapidly but briefly to cushion the impact on the driver or passengers in crashes at 15 m.p.h. or more, were once installed solely in expensive luxury cars. But as they began to appear as standard equipment in less expensive new cars, the number of thefts rose with them.
The market for stolen air bags seems to be expanding as well. Police suspect that some professional auto thieves are in league with body shops and workers who want the bags at reduced rates because they need them to complete repairs on cars involved in accidents 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 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 is about $1,200, without installation charges. New bags for other makes run $800 to $1,200.
A body shop worker with a supply of stolen air bags can pocket the difference between what is paid to the thief--perhaps about $150--and the $1,000 or more that is billed to an insurance company or car owner for a new bag, Lewin said.
The major risk for air bag thieves is that the devices are activated by a small charge of gunpowder that can be detonated by static electricity, although there have been no reports of such incidents, said Detective Bob Graybill, who heads the Valley-based Community Effort to Combat Auto Theft, known as CECATS.
In tests conducted at an auto theft investigators' school operated by the LAPD, the bags, when inflated, rocketed up to 70 feet in the air, Detective Gil Hetrick said.
"If it deployed while you had a bottle of soda pop, it would shove it right through your face," Hetrick said. "It would be like Mike Tyson hitting you right in the face."
When a motion detector senses the impact of the crash, it detonates a gunpowder-chemical charge, creating a cloud of gas that instantly snaps the balloon-like bag open.
Tom Treinen, president of Special Devices Inc., a Santa Clarita-based maker of the explosive "initiators" that trigger air bag deployment, agreed, saying 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.
Treinen also confirmed that static electricity could, in extreme cases, trigger the initiator. Treinen said his company expects to sell about 7 million of the devices in this fiscal year, and demand is growing.
Investigators say it is next to impossible to find crooked repair shop operators and prove that they violated the law by receiving stolen goods. But in at least one case, catching the alleged thieves was easy.