A car airbag has a strange life. It spends most of its time in hiding until our lives depend on it. Then it springs into action for a few seconds, fulfills its destiny and passes away.
That's not always the story for the noble airbag, and that's a good thing for car owners. In most cars and trucks, airbags never see the light of day. Car airbags are part of a vehicle's supplemental restraint system (SRS). They have been around since the 1970s and are now standard equipment on every vehicle. But do these important safety components stand the test of time? Eventually, most things break down on a car. Are airbags any different? The answer is yes and no.
Do they expire?
In the early 90’s, a number of automakers including Honda and Acura recommended a dealer inspection (mere visual inspection and confirmation that self-diagnostic functions were working well) of air bags every 10 years, inadvertently insinuating expiration. Other auto makers like Mercedes, installed airbag replacement labels in all their vehicles, calling for new airbags at the 15-year mark. Later on, Mercedes through their research concluded that airbags produced after 1992 could last the entire life of the vehicle.
While some automakers have set time limits on when to replace an airbag, the actual components are extremely durable. The key difference is the type of seal used to house the airbag igniter, also known as the squib. Almost all squibs since Day One have used what is called 'glass-to-metal' sealing, which is the best for moisture protection. In stark contrast, a plastic-to-metal seal is more likely to accumulate moisture over the years. This can lead to corrosion of the electrical pins in the igniter and potentially lead to a less responsive airbag.
The Self-Diagnostic Function
This light comes on in every vehicle to indicate that the supplemental restraint system (SRS) is performing a diagnostic check. If the light stays on, the airbag system may need repairs.
The burden of determining whether a car airbag is working properly isn't on the vehicle's owner. Nearly every vehicle equipped with an airbag has a diagnostic function and an SRS indicator light that signals when there is a problem.
When you start your car, the SRS light comes on a short period and then goes off as the self-diagnostic is completed by the computer. If the light either never comes up [at start-up] or comes on and stays on, then it can indicate a problem with the system.
Airbag tips for you
• If the SRS light in your car has come on or gone dark, take the car to your trusted technically apt mechanic as soon as possible.
• If you have an airbag-equipped car from the late 1980s to mid-1990s, make sure you check the owner's manual to see if the automaker calls for an airbag replacement or inspection. Check online for your car’s manual.
• Make sure you check the SRS light on a used car when inspecting it for purchase. Make sure you also check the seams of the airbag modules to see if anything looks misshapen or out of place.
• The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the USA (NHTSA) warns that since 2009, authentic-looking but extremely dangerous counterfeit airbags from China have been illegally imported into many countries around the globe, where they have been offered for sale online and might have been installed as replacement airbags by some unscrupulous repair shops. Car owners should be cautious both in choosing a repair shop and in confirming the source of parts used in the repair, NHTSA warns.
• The only replacement airbag that can be guaranteed to be safe is an original equipment unit purchased from the automaker through a new-car dealership. There are no legitimate "aftermarket" airbags from third-party suppliers, experts say. But automotive recyclers retrieve never-deployed airbags from scrapped autos and sell them as replacement parts to repair shops. It's perfectly legal, but some critics say the practice can be dangerous and caution consumers to shop carefully.