How to Tell if Your Car's Airbags are Functioning

Airbags are safety features designed to work with seat belts to protect drivers and passengers in the event of a collision. While a few cars included airbags as optional features as early as the 1970's, all cars built since 1998 had mandatory airbags factory installed. The federal government began requiring airbags in light trucks in 1999. Front airbags in all vehicles are required and regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Your car should have airbags if it's a 1998 or newer model, but if it's older or if unscrupulous dealers have removed airbags or failed to replace deployed ones, you may need to look closer to determine whether or not your car has a functional airbag.

Read your owner's manual. Yes, it really does contain information that can be useful. Airbag specifications for your car's airbag module, crash sensors and diagnostic unit can be found in the owner's manual.

Look at the steering wheel, the top of the door jams, the outboard edge of the seat back, in the door, in the roof rail above the door and in the dash panel. "Airbag" is stamped into all areas of your car that contain an airbag. I never noticed it until I looked for it, but it's everywhere.

Look under the dashboard at the cords and plugs. Bright yellow plugs are used only for airbags, so if you see a yellow plug you should have an airbag.

Check the dashboard lights. When you start your car, the airbag light comes on for a few seconds, then shuts off. If the airbag light stays on, your airbags may be missing or functioning incorrectly. If your airbag light doesn't come on at all, check the dash bulb to see if it's missing or burned out.

Check your dashboard and the area around your airbag compartments. Small rips and tears indicate that your car's airbag may have been deployed.

Watch the action of your seatbelts. If seatbelts don't retract or retract slowly, airbags may have been removed.

If you're still not sure your airbags are functioning properly, ask a reputable mechanic or airbag service technician to check your airbags. Don't try to open the airbag compartment, as you could damage airbags or severely injure yourself and other bystanders.

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