Car AirbagMost people never think about the airbags in their vehicles. They simply expect them to pop out when needed and to fulfill their mission of protecting drivers and passengers in a crash. Fortunately, that is what usually happens when airbags are deployed. However, there is a window during which airbags may be considered safe and a time when it might pay to have them inspected. While airbags do not “expire” per se, those in older cars may not function as well as those in newer vehicles, and the airbags in a very old vehicle may have been recalled and need replacement.

Airbags Are Built To Last

Modern technology has enabled automakers to create airbags that last for the life of the vehicle. However, there are a few early models of vehicles in which airbags were not built as well. The Safety Restraint Systems or SRS came into being in the 1970s, but it was not until the early 1990s that airbags became standard on most vehicles.

Some early cars, such as the pre-2002 Mercedes-Benz, called for airbag replacement every 15 years, according to Edmunds. The most common cause of airbag failure is not the bag itself but the seal used to house the igniter that triggers inflation of the airbag. Most of these use glass-to-metal sealing for prevention of moisture damage. Earlier models, however, may have used plastic-to-metal seals that could degrade over time, leading to failure to deploy in a crash.

However, most airbags are still working fine, even after 30 years. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, most airbags have withstood the test of time and are functioning well no matter what the vehicle’s age.

How Do I Know If My Airbags Will Work?

The problems with diagnosing if the airbags will deploy on impact is that until a crash happens, it is impossible to know if there is a problem with the airbag without having the vehicle undergo extensive and expensive testing. Therefore, manufacturers have built in an indicator light to alert the driver if something goes wrong and the airbags may not be working properly.

This indicator light is usually present with the letters “SRS” somewhere on the dashboard. It is often located near the speedometer in the vehicle’s main instrument panel, but may be located elsewhere on the dashboard. There may be separate indicator lights for each airbag in the vehicle or one dedicated light that alerts the driver if any airbag is compromised.

Every time the car is started, the SRS performs a self-diagnostic. The SRS light will briefly light up then extinguish as the car’s computer returns positive airbag test results. If the light does not come on or stays on after starting the vehicle, it is important to have the system checked immediately.

Many cars run SRS diagnostic checks several times a second to ensure that the airbags work properly at all times.

Are My Airbags Covered By Warranty?

While seat belts are covered for the life of the vehicle, some airbags are only covered for a limited time for repair or replacement. This is not because airbags will not last for the life of the vehicle but because these repairs are generally labor-intensive and expensive. It is important to understand how your airbags are warranted before you purchase the car.

Some manufacturers do replace airbags without question no matter when they malfunction. Read the owner’s manual and your warranty information carefully to determine how much is covered by your vehicle’s manufacturer.

When inspecting a car for purchase, check the SRS light. It should come on briefly when you start the car and go out shortly afterwards. If the light stays on, it should be considered something to check into. If the vehicle’s history report indicates it has been in an accident, it is usually a good idea to have the airbags inspected. Some dealers have used cheap replacement airbags from China that were illegally imported into the United States. These airbags are very dangerous and may not deploy as intended. Only legitimate airbags from manufacturers should be used to replace deployed airbags. Even aftermarket airbags culled from wrecked vehicles are not an ideal replacement for a deployed airbag. If your car is involved in an accident in which the airbags are deployed, insist on factory replacement parts for your vehicle, even if the cost is greater than for aftermarket parts.

Your safety and that of your family is dependent in large part on your airbags. Be sure you understand the risks involved in airbag replacement and stay up-to-date on airbag recalls.