How to Tell If a Used Car Had an Airbag Deployed

April 10, 2012

If an user car's airbag has been deployed, you should definitely research the car's accident history. Here's how to check for prior airbag deployment.

When purchasing a used vehicle, it is important to know if it had an airbag deployed. An airbag deployment requires that the airbag, the modules and the cover all be replaced. Moreover, all of the electronics involved in airbag deployment must be inspected and replaced if necessary. This can be an expensive undertaking, and some unscrupulous salespeople and/or mechanics will only perform cosmetic repairs.

Airbag Deployment Detection

Despite cover-up jobs, there are some ways to tell if the vehicle has had an airbag deployed.

Utilize All Research Options

Ask the seller detailed questions about the vehicle you intend to buy. Specifically, you want information concerning accidents. Unless the vehicle sustained only minor damage to the sides or the rear, there was probably an airbag deployment. There are services that provide vehicle histories. Some vehicle sellers will supply a copy of the report free of charge. However, be prepared to order and purchase one on your own. Even with the vehicle history report, you should always take the vehicle to a trusted mechanic for an impartial inspection. Not only will you know if there was an airbag deployment, but you will also know if the vehicle is in good working order.

Inspect the Airbag Cover

When an airbag deploys, the airbag cover splits apart. The split cover can be repaired. Look and feel for any unevenness in the cover. Check for the presence of seams and repainting. If the cover was repainted, it will look "fresh" compared to the rest of the interior. Check the cover to see if it has the vehicle manufacturer's emblem and the SRS (Safety Restraint System) logo on it. Cosmetic airbag covers will not have the emblem or the SRS logo. Indeed, some cosmetic covers will state that there is not an airbag inside it.

Inspect the Dash

Another indicator of airbag deployment is dash replacement. When there is an airbag deployment, both the driver and passenger side airbags will have deployed. Since the passenger side airbag is located inside the dash, an airbag deployment will split the dash open.

Check the Airbag Indicator Light

The airbag indicator light can clue you in on airbag system trouble. Turn the ignition key to the first position, and pause there. This is the indicator light test position. You should see all the indicator lights turn on, including the airbag light. Turn the ignition to the start position and start the vehicle. Take note of the airbag indicator light. Normal operation is when the light comes on momentarily and goes out. If the light stays on or flashes, there is a problem with the airbag system.

There are vehicle sellers and mechanics that will try to fool unsuspecting used car buyers by hiding an airbag deployment. You need to know whether the vehicle had an airbag deployed before you purchase it. Vehicle self-inspections and vehicle reports are a good start in detecting airbag deployment. However, the best way to detect it is to take the vehicle to a trusted mechanic for a thorough inspection.

When Should an Airbag Deploy?

In 1999, standards changed when research showed that airbags that deployed in situations where they were not warranted only made accidents worse, and injuries more frequent. Today, cars are rigged with a bevy of sensors that can interpret the crash in literally milliseconds. These sensors will determine if the accident warrants airbag deployment. Airbags will only deploy if there is enough pressure caused by the car accident. Airbag deployment will occur if the impact crosses the threshold, or is at a certain speed.

Speed is not the only factor in if the airbag should deploy. In most new cars, airbags will not deploy if there is not a certain amount of weight in the seat. Weight sensors can protect against airbags hurting infants and young children. This is why children should be in the back seat, in a car seat and strapped in.

The various sensors take around 50 milliseconds, and then it takes another 100 milliseconds to deploy the airbag. The total time involved is about as long as it takes to blink your eye. You can rest assured that your airbags will deploy when they are needed, and will do so in a very quick manner.

Injuries Associated with Airbag Deployment

The force generated by airbag deployment has been known to cause injuries to drivers and passengers. While airbags indeed save lives, providing the much needed cushioning that significantly reduces the potential for severe injury and fatality, the force generated by their deployment is considerable. There are potential injuries as a result of airbag deployment.

Most airbag-induced injuries are relatively minor, in nature of scrapes, bruises and scratches. Airbags are referred to as supplemental restraints, meaning that they work best when used in conjunction with required passenger restraints like seat belts. Serious or fatal airbag injuries related to deployment are often related to the improper use of seat belts or improperly secured child seats. In the event of an accident, this can cause excess movement, which can position the passenger too close to the airbag when it is deployed.

In some cases, people who sit too close to the steering column may be at risk of suffering injury from an airbag. Some of the more serious injuries are trauma to the head, like a broken nose, chest injuries like a broken rib, or injuries to the fingers, hands and arms.

The airbag deployment threshold has always been a focus of concern for automakers. Over the years, technological innovations and advances have allowed airbag thresholds to be raised to higher levels to increase safety. Standards are mandated by the government, however airbag deployment thresholds vary among manufacturers within those safety standards.

How to Prevent Accidental Airbag Deployment

Accidental airbag deployment is not only a potentially expensive problem to fix in your car, but it can also be dangerous to you and to the other people in your vehicle. If your airbag deploys when it shouldn't, you may be injured by the deployment itself, or it may cause you to subsequently get into an accident.

Check the Airbag Deployment Threshold

Each vehicle airbag has a sensor system that determines the status of your vehicle. When you get into an accident, the increase in pressure in that area as the metal and other parts of the vehicle become compressed causes the sensor to adjust. When a certain threshold is met, the sensor activates the airbags. One of the most common reasons that airbags deploy when they shouldn't is that the sensor threshold is set improperly. Have a mechanic test it for you and reset the threshold to a higher level, if this is a problem.

Check the Sensor

If the sensor is malfunctioning in general, you may run the risk for increased likelihood of your airbags deploying. Test out the sensor with the help of a mechanic who can keep it in mind without activating the airbags. If you have a faulty sensor, it's oftentimes best to replace the system wholesale rather than attempt to adjust it.

Between these two steps, you should be able to prevent any potentially harmful accidental airbag deployment from occurring in your vehicle. Ask a professional mechanic for more information and advice.

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