What You Need To Know About Airbag Warning Lights

Regardless of what triggered it, an airbag warning light needs to be diagnosed.

Close-up view of dashboard with orange airbag warning light on speedometerShutterstock

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The warning lights that might occasionally add color to your car's instrument cluster aren't your enemies. They light up to warn you about a problem that can be serious, can leave you stranded, or both. The airbag light comes in different shapes and colors depending on the car, and it normally indicates a safety hazard, so you shouldn't ignore it.

What Does the Airbag Warning Light Look Like?

Usually integrated into the instrument cluster, the airbag warning light is often shaped like the outline of a person in a sitting position with two lines that represent the seatbelt and a big ball that represents the airbag. It can be orange or red, depending on the model. In some cars, the airbag warning light simply says airbag in capital letters, while in others it shows up as "SRS" (short for supplemental restraint system, which the airbags are part of). Late-model cars equipped with a digital instrument cluster sometimes give a written warning, such as "airbag system malfunction" or "airbag system service required".

Why Is My Airbag Warning Light On?

Regardless of its shape and color, the airbag warning light indicates there is a problem with the airbag system, and the issue could prevent one or more airbags from deploying in a crash. Pinpointing the exact cause of the problem requires retrieving the error code from the car's computer that triggered the light.

While a crash sensor is normally designed to last for the life of a vehicle, a failure isn't unheard of and that can trigger an airbag warning light. For example, one of the sensors might need to be replaced or reset after a car is involved in a collision that's not severe enough to deploy the airbags. The sensor did its job: It detected the impact, analyzed data such as the car's speed, and decided not to deploy the airbags.

An electrical problem (like a loose wire) can trigger an airbag warning light as well. Sometimes, the issue that illuminated the light isn't related to the airbags. The seatbelt pretensioners (devices that tighten the seatbelts in an accident) are also part of the SRS system and can trigger the light if they fail or break. They're important as well: without pre-tensioners, in a crash you could be flung forward into the steering wheel and the deploying airbag.

What Should I Do if the Airbag Warning Light Comes On?

Carmakers recommend leaving airbag-related repairs to a professional. The airbag system is relatively complex, incredibly important, and made up of parts that are challenging to access. Problems typically require special tools and experience to diagnose and fix. Ignoring the airbag light (or removing the bulb that illuminates it) isn't recommended. Car manufacturers stress that drivers should bring their vehicles to a dealer as soon as possible if the light comes on. The issue may be minor, but your life could depend on it.

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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.