Do Airbags Expire?

Most airbags last for the life of the vehicle, but there are some exceptions.

2015 GMC Acadia airbags illustrated in 7-seater interiorGMC

Article QuickTakes:

Drivers rarely think about their late-model car’s airbags, even though they stare in the direction of one every time they’re behind the wheel. As the number of airbags installed in new cars grows, however, drivers might wonder if the bag, or its triggering system, has an expiration date. The short answer is no, but there are some exceptions.

How Does an Airbag Work?

An airbag works the same way on every car, whether it’s installed in the steering wheel, the dashboard, or the headliner. Crash sensors analyze data sent by an accelerometer to detect when the car suddenly stops moving. The sensors trigger an inflator that creates a small blast to inflate the bag. This occurs in about one 25th of a second, and the airbag quickly deflates.

Airbags in Newer Cars

Broadly speaking, airbags installed in cars built since the early 2000s don't need to be replaced. They're designed to last for the life of the vehicle. Improvements in airbag technology have made this longevity possible: In the 1990s, some manufacturers used plastic-sealing technology to keep moisture out of the inflator, while most cars built during the past two decades feature longer-lasting sealing technology.

Replacing a deployed airbag is necessary, even if the crash damage isn't severe. There is not a single car sold in the world with reusable airbags that have been deployed. You might also need to replace the airbag or part of the system due to a faulty component, though most late-model cars are equipped with an on-board diagnostic system designed to detect issues and warn the driver.

Airbags in Older Cars

General Motors was among the first carmakers to offer airbags. Some of the 1973 Chevrolet Impalas were fitted with airbags, and the so-called Air Cushion Restraint System was made optional on some Buick, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile models for the 1974 model year. Front airbags became mandatory on all new cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. in 1998.

Until 2002, Mercedes-Benz recommended replacing the airbags in its cars after 15 years. In 2002, the company’s research proved that airbags installed in cars built after 1992 didn’t need to be replaced. Many models sold by the German company in the 1980s were fitted with at least one airbag, so if you own one of those, it’s wise to get the system inspected and updated if needed.

Other manufacturers made similar recommendations. In the 1990s, Honda suggested getting the airbags inspected after 10 years. If in doubt, check the owner’s manual or ask a dealership for advice.

What About Takata Inflators?

Tens of millions of vehicles built by 19 manufacturers were part of what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration called the largest vehicle recall in U.S. history. The list of affected models includes bargain-priced economy cars, high-end sports cars, and just about anything in between. These cars are equipped with an airbag inflator manufactured by Takata that can explode and send shrapnel flying toward the occupants. This defect is exacerbated by heat and humidity, and it has caused about 30 deaths worldwide and more than 400 injuries. The NHTSA asks owners of affected cars to get the inflator replaced immediately, free of charge, and it provides a list of recalled vehicles with such airbags on its website.

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Ronan Glon
Ronan Glon is an American journalist and automotive historian based in France. He enjoys working on old cars and spending time outdoors seeking out his next project car.