Do Car Airbags Expire?

Airbag text
Airbags can save a life - we hope you've had little experience with automobile airbags, since they only deploy during an accident. Generally speaking, most drivers forget that their cars are even equipped with airbags. After all, airbags are hidden away until needed. But like any component on your vehicle, airbags on older cars require occasional inspections. Do car airbags expire? And if they do, how often do you need to replace them? Let's find out.
First of all, if you own a newer car, it is unlikely that your airbags will ever need to be replaced. That's because safety airbags on vehicles built in the last ten years are built to last the life of your car. But what about if you have an older car? If you own a car, truck or SUV that was made before 1990, the automaker may advise you to change your airbags as part of the routine maintenance of the vehicle.

How Airbags Came To Be
 o better understand this safety device, let's look back at a bit of airbag history. As the story goes, a retired industrial engineer named John W. Hetrick designed the first airbag for a passenger vehicle in 1952 after he and his family were involved in a car accident. He immediately began sketching designs for a "safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles" and patented it in 1952. His design included a hidden tank of compressed air and inflatable bags for the driver and passenger.
German inventor Walter Linderer got a German patent for a similar system three months after Hetrick got his patent. But testing proved that compressed air could not inflate the bags fast enough in an accident. By the early 1960s, both General Motors and Ford were experimenting with inflatable restraint systems.


  • In 1967, mechanical engineer Allen Breed created the first airbags with reliable sensors and in the same year Mercedes-Benz began developing airbags in its vehicles.
  • In 1968, the National Highway traffic Safety Board Administration (NHTSA) required all cars to have seat belts. Research on "passive restraint systems" such as vehicle airbags continued into the 1970s.
  • In 1972, the Oldsmobile Toronado became the first car to be sold with a factory-equipped passenger airbag and the restraint system became available as an option on Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile models. 
  • Mercedes-Benz began offering airbags in its high end models in 1981. 
  • Porsche offered driver and passenger airbags in its 994 Turbo beginning in 1987 and the first Japanese car to include airbags was the 1987 Honda Legend.
  • Chrysler became the first U.S. automaker to offer airbags as standard equipment in 1988 and became the first American manufacturer to utilize driver-side airbags in all its models by 1991. 
  • Ford made airbags standard equipment in all its vehicles in 1990. 
  • The Jeep Cherokee was the first SUV with airbags in 1992 and the Dodge Ram pickup was the first truck with airbags in 1993.
At first, airbags were primarily located in the steering wheel and passenger dash. But as the technology improved, they began to appear as side curtains, side torso airbags, and more.

Photo: Timetoast
Replacing Airbags
Prior to 2002, some foreign automakers used plastic sealing technology around the airbag's igniter. The plastic would deteriorate over time and cause airbag failure. Automakers were unsure about how long an airbag could last and recommended that the airbags should be inspected every few years. Some automakers suggested that airbags should be replaced after 15 years.
It should be noted that the majority of vehicles built prior to 2002 used glass sealing technology which stops moisture from penetrating the igniter. These airbags do not deteriorate like early plastic sealed systems. In fact, the NHTSA has reported that 30-year-old airbags have performed perfectly well in collisions. By 1998, federal regulations required that all new vehicles be outfitted with dual airbags as standard equipment.
Today's vehicles come equipped with self-diagnostic systems for airbag technology. Every time you start your car, onboard computers run a check of all of your car's safety features, including the airbags. As this happens, you will notice various warning lights cycling through their diagnostic system check. Lights such as the check engine warning light, the battery light, oil pressure light, and tire pressure monitor will all light up briefly as the system checks for errors. In cars by General Motors, the self-diagnostic function checks the system ten times per second.
The airbag warning light, which looks like a person holding a large red ball in their lap, is one of these "system check" lights. The light will shut off after the system completes its analysis. However, an error code in the system can cause the "airbag light" to come on and stay on. This could mean there is a problem with one of your vehicle's airbags. This won't cause you to get stuck by the side of the road, but it could be dangerous in the event of an accident. If your car's airbag light comes on and stays on while driving, take your vehicle to your local Lithia Auto dealer to diagnose the problem.

How Airbags Work

Airbags are hidden inside your steering wheel and the passenger airbag is tucked away behind the dashboard, above the glove box. The airbag itself is made from a thin nylon material and each airbag has its own control unit in which a sensor detects sudden deceleration. Either nitrogen or argon gas is used to inflate the airbag, and when deployed, the airbag inflates incredibly quickly, usually within 25 milliseconds. The airbag system ignites a solid propellant, which creates a large volume of gas to inflate the bag in the blink of an eye.
Airbags have vents behind them so that the gases escape after deployment. This makes the bags softer during impact with the occupants of the car. Immediately after deployment, a "smoke-like" residue will be present in the air. This is talcum powder or flour that is used to prevent the airbag from sticking to itself while it is stored away.

Do Airbags Expire?

Many years ago when airbags were a new technology on cars, automakers had no idea how long they would continue to function safely. Many automakers such as Mercedes-Benz placed airbag replacement labels on all vehicles sold in the U.S. through 2002. Those labels called for airbags to be replaced after 15 years. But after much research, automakers have concluded that airbags produced after 1992 will last the lifetime of the vehicle. That means that all modern cars that have been built since 1992 contain airbags that should function perfectly.

Today, replacement labels and recommended dealer inspections for airbags are a thing of the past. If you own an older car, check your owner's manual to see if the manufacturer requires airbag replacement or inspection. You can also check for airbag information on the driver's side door jamb or on the back of your sun visors.
Real-world data from over 30 years of airbag use has proven these systems' reliability and longevity. If you drive a relatively new car, you can rely on today's airbag systems to keep you and your family safe for the life of your car, truck or SUV. Once deployed, airbags must be replaced. The only replacement airbag that is guaranteed to be safe is an original equipment unit, purchased from the automaker through your certified dealership.

Let Lithia Help
If you have a question about any of the safety systems on your vehicle, give your local Lithia Auto dealer a call. You'll find the closest dealership near you right here. Your safety is important to us, because we want to keep you as a customer for life!