If the car you drive is less than 20 years old, it probably has at least two airbags in it. These complex devices sit there unnoticed, until the right set of circumstances causes them to inflate, cushioning the occupants from an impact that could cause serious injury, or even death. Once that your airbags have been deployed in an accident, a large part of the repairs that follow will involve the replacement of your airbag system. This assures you that this key safety system will operate properly, the next time it is needed.
Airbag system replacement can be very expensive. Depending on the age and condition of your car, the cost of replacing your airbags and related components could be high enough to cause your car to be “totaled” by your insurance company. We will provide you with an in-depth look at what airbags are, how they work, and what other components are part of your airbag system. We will also examine what needs to be replaced when your airbags deploy, whether it’s safe to drive without airbags, and whether you should attempt to replace your own airbags. We will cover what you should expect when you get your airbags replaced, what it could cost, and how long it takes. Finally, we will provide some guidance on what to do if your car is totaled. Let’s go!
What are airbags and what do they do?
As their name suggests, airbags are inflatable “bags” that inflate extremely quickly, to protect the occupants of a vehicle in the event of certain types of accidents. The first commonly available airbags were placed in the center of the steering wheel, to protect the driver in a frontal collision. These were followed by an airbag for the front passenger, installed in the dashboard. Starting with the 1998 model year, all cars sold in the US had to have airbags like these installed for the driver and front-seat passenger. Airbags are called “passive restraints,” because they operate automatically, without any driver involvement, when they are needed.
But not all accidents involve hitting something with your car’s front end. Later, other types of airbags were developed. These include side-impact airbags, which can deploy out of the sides of the front seats, or they can come down from the roof like a curtain. These side impact airbags can prevent injuries not only from cars hitting you in the door area but can also deploy in a rollover accident to protect the occupants from head injuries.
How do airbags work?
While airbags are definitely bags, they do not use air to inflate themselves. The earliest versions of car airbags (patented in 1953!) were actually powered by compressed air, but research proved that a compressed air system could not react fast enough. Why? Because an airbag system must not only sense that a severe-enough accident is happening as the front bumper first makes impact, it must also quickly fill up the airbag just before the driver or front passenger moves forward, in response to the car slowing down as it hits the object. We are talking milliseconds (that’s thousandths of a second) here:
Time for airbag computer to decide it should deploy: 15 to 30 milliseconds
Time for airbag to fully inflate: 20 to 30 milliseconds
Even allowing for a few extra milliseconds here and there, you still have your airbag deploying within a tenth of a second after the initial impact – that’s extremely fast!
How is this possible? We can thank the space program, specifically solid-fueled rocket boosters. Inside each airbag is an explosive chemical charge that is triggered by an electrical impulse from the airbag computer. This charge ignites the chemicals packed inside the airbag module, creating a controlled explosion that quickly fills the airbag with nitrogen gas.
As your body comes forward to meet the inflated airbag, vents in the bag slowly release the gas inside, absorbing the impact and keeping your upper body from bouncing off the airbag, preventing the possibility of whiplash. Today’s high-tech airbag systems can even adjust the force with which they inflate, based on how hard of an impact there will be. It is an amazing piece of technology, to be sure.
What are the components of an airbag system?
There are many different components that make up your airbag system. Each one must work correctly, so that the airbags will deploy when they are needed, and also so that they will not go off when they shouldn’t. Here’s the list:
What needs to be replaced when airbags deploy?
Your airbag system is extremely well-engineered to protect you from major, life-threatening impacts. Unfortunately, it is only designed for a single use. Once that you have had (and lived through) a bad accident that required your airbags to do their job, there is much work to be done to get your airbag system back to its original condition. If you think about it, that’s the only condition that you would want it to be in, the next time you need it!
Let’s review all the things that must be repaired or replaced, so that you can continue to drive with the confidence that your airbags will be there to protect you, whenever that need arises.
Reviewing the data
Your airbag control unit will have stored information about the incident. This lets the people repairing the system know which specific parts of the system were involved, and what might need to be reprogrammed or replaced.
Collision damage to your car
In a major impact that causes your airbags to deploy, there will usually be some serious body and structural damage to repair. Body panels, bumpers, grilles, headlights, wheels, tires, structural members, and even some mechanical parts will be damaged and need replacement.
Items like crash sensors may be damaged or destroyed in the impact, so they will need to be replaced. Many sensors are designed for a single use and must be replaced after an accident, regardless of whether they were in the impact zone.
Any airbags that have been deployed will have to be replaced, along with repairing any other damage they have caused. This is fairly straightforward with your steering wheel airbag, even if the steering wheel and other parts also need replacement. But it gets more complicated with the front passenger airbag (which has blown a hole in your dashboard), the front seat side airbag (which has torn the side of your seat apart), or the side-curtain airbag (which has come bursting through your car’s ceiling).
Airbag control unit
Depending on the specific vehicle and the extent of the damage, most airbag control units will need to be replaced or reprogrammed.
Depending on your car’s specific airbag design, the clock spring may need to be replaced. This becomes necessary if the heat produced by the deployment of the driver’s airbag melts the clock spring’s electrical connector. A visual inspection will reveal the condition of this connector, and whether a replacement clock spring is needed.
Seat belt tensioners
Just as with the airbag modules, the seat belt tensioners are good for one tightening. After they have done their job, the relevant parts of the tensioners must be replaced, so that this important subsystem is ready for the next major impact, if and when it should happen. In some cases, a complete replacement of the belts and buckles will be necessary.
Wiring and connectors
Similar to what can happen to the clock spring, there can be damage to other parts of the airbag wiring system, as well as the connectors that join the pieces together. Whether from heat or from the impact, the damage to these components must be found and repaired.
Resetting the entire system
Once that all of the parts of the airbag system have been replaced, the system needs to be reset and tested, to be sure that everything will operate properly when it is called upon to protect your car’s occupants. The sensors, the control unit, the wiring, and everything else must be checked and verified.
Replacement of other interior parts
Most airbags use corn starch or talcum powder to lubricate the airbag when it is inflated. This can create a cloud of dust that settles over the entire interior. If this dust cannot be removed by cleaning, then some interior components may require replacement.
Is it safe to drive without airbags?
There are a few different answers to this question. Let’s first remember that before the 1990s, the majority of cars did not have airbags. People got into their cars, drove where they needed to, and got back home in one piece, most of the time. These drivers did not believe that their cars were unsafe. By the standards of the time, they were driving the safest cars ever made!
Let’s also remember that most car accidents are not head-on frontal collisions, either with another vehicle or some other physical object. This means that your front airbags are unlikely to go off in most real-world accidents. So there’s that.
But we live in an unpredictable world, particularly when we get behind the wheel. Given the choice, would you rather have a fully-functioning airbag system in your car, or go without it? Are you willing to roll the dice on whether you (and anyone else in the car with you) would survive a random high-speed frontal impact? That’s the real question!
Let’s say that you have had an accident where your airbags went off. Maybe your car is drivable, and you are waiting for the insurance process to work out, so you can get your car fixed. It is fine to drive your car without airbags for the short time it takes to get the OK from the insurance carrier. Just drive gently and defensively and be sure to wear your seat belts (which you should be doing anyway!).
Here's another scenario: You have a car that is older and has lots of miles on it. You had an accident where your airbags went off, and now the cost of the repairs is high enough that your insurance company wants to total your car. What should you do? Drive it without airbags?
The legal angle on driving without airbags
This is not an issue that you have total control over. Depending on where you live, and what your car insurance policy says on the subject, the choice may not be yours.
Federal rules state that:
- All cars made since the 1998 model year must have functioning airbags
- It’s illegal for a dealer or mechanic (but not the owner) to remove or disable the airbag system
State regulations vary:
- A total of 18 states have regular mechanical inspections which may require properly functioning airbags
- Six of these states specifically require checks of airbags and their readiness lights:
- Rhode Island
- West Virginia
If you live in one of those six states, your car will definitely not pass its inspection without functioning airbags. If you reside in any of the other 12 states with a more general mechanical inspection, you should consult your state’s vehicle regulations, or contact an inspection station near you, to learn whether airbags are included. Those states are:
- New Hampshire
- New York
- North Carolina
If your car insurance policy lists your car as having airbags, then driving the car without them is a change in your safety equipment, which is a key element of your premium. Driving without airbags changes this, increases your risk of injury in an accident, and it could void your policy. If this happens, you are now driving without car insurance, which is illegal in most states.
Then there’s the issue of having a totaled car with a salvage title, if you should choose to buy your car from the insurance company. Your car is now essentially worthless, is not eligible as a trade-in, and can’t be financed by a buyer. You’re stuck with it.
As you can see, driving without airbags for a prolonged period after an accident is not a practical option.
Can you replace your own airbags?
This is a complex question, because replacing your airbags is an extremely complicated type of repair, even for an experienced mechanic. As you can see in the sections above where we listed all the different parts in your airbag system, and then all the components that have to be removed, replaced, and reset, this is not a job for amateurs.
It’s not a great idea, for many reasons
Remember, you are dealing with explosive devices located inches from your head – nothing but a perfect repair job is acceptable. Otherwise, you are playing a never-ending game of Russian Roulette. As Clint Eastwood famously said in his role as Dirty Harry, “…you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’”
So yes, it is technically possible to personally replace your airbags. There are several guides to doing this online, if you should want to search them out. The least complicated repair process is replacing the driver’s airbag, where it is a relatively simple matter to replace the airbag module in the steering wheel. Just take the old one out and put a new one in. But there’s a lot more than that:
Notes on Proper Airbag Replacement
- You must know how to disconnect the power from both the battery and the airbag control unit, so that the new air bag does not fire while you are installing it
- You must clear the codes in the control unit, or replace it if this can’t be done
- You must replace the crash sensors, which are good for a single use only
- You must replace the clock spring if it has been damaged
- You must replace the seat belt tensioner mechanism so that it works the next time it is needed
- You must be able to reset the airbag system and verify that it will work during the next major impact
This is not the type of repair to attempt without extensive training and the right tools. There are too many places where a mistake can lead to either a premature deployment of the airbag, or the airbag not going off when you need it most. Neither of these is a desirable outcome.
Then there are the personal and liability issues that can arise from a faulty airbag installation. As the car’s owner, you may be willing to take on the risk of doing it yourself. But what happens if a loved one is driving or has an accident, and the airbag does not operate? Can you live with that? Or let’s say that you sell the car to someone, and they are injured when the airbag doesn’t work. You could be in for a major lawsuit, with serious damages to pay and maybe even jail time. It’s just not worth the risk.
Be careful of where your replacement airbag came from
Now we get to the issue of where that replacement airbag is coming from. The desire to keep your costs to a minimum may lead you to buy an airbag of questionable quality and performance. This is a very bad idea, because you have no guarantee that it will work. You are putting your life on the line by doing this.
Avoid buying a used replacement airbag from a salvage yard or an internet seller. Some older airbags actually have an expiration date. Others may have not been removed correctly, damaging them or making them inoperative. Some will simply be defective. Many will be made for cars other than your specific year, make, and model, and may not deploy properly. Using an old, used airbag, on top of installing it yourself, exponentially increases the risk of a problem with catastrophic consequences. We are talking about your safety here, as well as the safety of everyone who rides in your car.
A safer source for replacement airbags is a new car dealer that sells your car’s brand, as well as reputable auto repair shops and body shops. These places can supply you with a new, OEM-quality replacement air bag for your specific vehicle. And while you are at it, have them install it as well!
What to expect when getting your airbags replaced
It will take time
With the sheer complexity of this repair job in mind, it is fair to say that you will be without your car for a considerable length of time, when it is being repaired. In addition to the body and structural damage from the accident, most or all the airbag system components, as outlined above, will need to be replaced, reset, and tested. A thorough interior cleaning may also be necessary, to remove any corn starch or powder residue.
If you have an extra vehicle to use, or you have rental-car coverage in your car insurance policy, you will have something to drive while you wait. If not, you may have to rent a car yourself, or use ride-sharing services to fill the gap.
It will cost someone a lot of money
If the accident or incident was your fault, the repair costs will largely be borne by your car insurance carrier, with the exception of your deductible (which will be paid out of your pocket). As with most types of insurance, once you make a claim, the insurance company will add a surcharge to your premium payments for a number of years, in an attempt to reclaim some of the money they have paid out for your car’s repairs. This will also be paid out of your pocket.
If your car accident was caused by another driver, and he or she is determined to be at fault, then his or her insurance company will be responsible for fixing all of your car’s damage, as well as any medical costs for dealing with injuries that may have occurred. In this case, the other party is on the hook for all the costs, and you should have no out-of-pocket expenses, depending on the details of the other party’s coverage.
How much does airbag replacement cost?
This question can have many correct answers, based on the details relating to the accident that caused your airbags to deploy:
- How many airbags went off?
- Is there interior damage from the deployment of the driver’s knee airbag, the passenger-side frontal airbag, the seat airbags, or the side curtain airbags?
- Do the crash sensors and airbag control unit need replacing (usually a yes)?
- Does the clock spring need to be replaced?
- Was there a powder storm that needs to be cleaned up?
- Does any of the related wiring or connectors need to be replaced?
- Is the vehicle a mass-market or a luxury brand?
- What are the parts and labor costs for all the above items?
It’s a big range, depending on the accident and the vehicle
The cost for airbag replacement can range from low to high to somewhere in-between. More replacement parts mean a higher repair bill, and luxury brand parts usually cost much more than those of the mass-market brands. Your replacement costs could be low, such as in the case of a driver’s airbag only in a small, low-cost car like a Toyota Corolla, that may have been in an accident at a fairly low speed. But if you think about a large, three-row Mercedes-Benz SUV that had a major frontal impact and then rolled over, setting off every airbag in the vehicle, you will have a truly spectacular repair bill! Most accidents will fall in the middle, perhaps with both frontal bags and the seat belt tensioners having been engaged.
Generally speaking, the cost of replacing your airbags and all related parts can range from $3,000 to $6,000, according to insurance company Liberty Mutual. The number of airbags involved, where they are located, and the cost of the parts and labor, will all account for the variations in estimated pricing.
How long does it take to replace an airbag?
Once again, it depends. The quickest possible replacement procedure would be a situation where you are taking your car in for an airbag recall, where all that must be done is to replace the driver’s side airbag in the steering wheel. Since there is no accident damage to the vehicle or the rest of the airbag system, the airbag itself can be swapped out in as little as two hours, which means that you should get your car back the same day.
But if there is accident damage to the exterior of the vehicle, its interior has also been damaged by the opening of several airbags, and other parts of the airbag system must be replaced and tested, this can take a while. If the body shop is busy, it can take even longer. The whole process could take anywhere from several days to a week or more. Ask the shop how long your specific repair should take.
What if my car is totaled after the airbags go off?
Having your car “totaled” by the insurance company after an accident where the airbags deploy is a distinct possibility. It is even more likely if you have an older vehicle with lots of miles on it. The cost of repairing its airbag system, plus the accident damage, may be way more than it is worth, and will usually result in a “totaled” verdict from the insurance carrier.
What are your options? It costs too much to fix, you shouldn’t try to do your own airbag repairs, and it will have a salvage title, rendering it virtually unsalable. Is it time to cut your losses and get rid of your car now?
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