Can Airbags Go Bad?

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Based on current events, we have to say, yes, they can go bad.

We’re referring to the recalls and investigations of airbags manufactured by Japan-based Takata Corp., a major global auto-parts supplier.

In the U.S., millions of vehicles produced by Honda, General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Chrysler, BMW and other manufacturers with Takata airbags have been recalled because of defective inflators that can lead the airbag to explode, spreading shrapnel. Four deaths in the U.S. have been blamed on the defective airbags. One area being investigated is whether the propellant used to inflate the airbags, ammonium nitrate, became unstable because of long-term exposure to humidity and moisture.

Overall, though, airbags have been reliable, auto manufacturers and safety officials say. Frequent reports can be found of airbags installed in vehicles 10 or 15 years ago deploying as designed when needed.

That ability to stand the test of time means that no automaker, to our knowledge, currently recommends a time or mileage limit when airbags should be replaced (during the 1990s, some did recommend replacement after 10 years).

However, no manufacturer covers replacement of airbags or related components after the warranty expires. Some manufacturers advise in their owner’s manuals to have airbags inspected after 10 years, so it might be worth checking into if you have a vehicle from the 2005 model year or older.

This doesn’t mean airbags last forever or will always deploy as expected, no matter what. Frequent reports from vehicle owners say that airbags didn’t deploy when they were supposed to. Crash sensors or wires can corrode or be damaged in an accident and not replaced, for example, or the electronic controls for an airbag system may not be working or could be disconnected.

In those cases, a dashboard warning light that signals that the airbags aren’t armed and ready to deploy should illuminate. However, the warning light may not be working or may have been intentionally disconnected to cover up that the system isn’t functional. There are even reports of vehicles being sold that had been in an accident in which the airbags deployed and hadn’t been replaced.

The airbag warning light should come on briefly every time the vehicle is started. If it doesn’t (or if the warning light stays on), a qualified repair shop should check the system.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety advises that if airbags need replacement after deploying or if they need repair, this should be done at a repair shop that uses original equipment manufacturer replacement parts. That ensures that the new airbag isn’t counterfeit or a salvaged part that isn’t designed for your vehicle.

The cost of replacing a nonfunctional airbag varies by vehicle. Check with your dealer or mechanic.

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