Is It Illegal to Drive Without Airbags? Answers by State

A car with deployed airbags is still drivable. Whether you can legally drive it after that depends on what your insurance policy says and what state you live in. While the federal government has not outright forbid driving a car without airbags, there are several state and federal laws that essentially make it illegal — or, at the very least, unadvisable.

In This Article

Can You Physically Drive Without Airbags?

Is a car drivable after airbags deploy? Yes. Airbags deploying have nothing to do with the actual functioning of the car. Should you drive your car after the airbags deploy? No — at least not any farther than you need to to get it fixed. But can you drive car after airbag deploys — yes. It would be dangerous if you couldn’t. But your seat belt tensioners will be locked which means you can’t use a seat belt and that’s illegal in most places.

Insurance companies will often declare a car “totaled” if the airbags deploy. The car may run just fine, but if the airbags deployed, the emergency seat belt pre-tensioners were triggered, too. The seat belt may still “lock” when you pull on it, but the rapid-fire clamp mechanism that protects you in an accident is shot. The pre-tensioners and airbags will need to be repaired or replaced for your safety. Because these repairs are very expensive, an insurance company will often declare the vehicle a “total loss.” But physically can you drive a car with airbags deployed — yes.

Is It Illegal to Drive Without Airbags?

Is it illegal to drive a car without airbags? The federal government has not outright forbid driving without airbags, in part because many older and classic cars do not have airbags. Front-seat airbags became required standard equipment on new cars in 1999. However, driving your car after the airbags have been deployed or disabled may be forbidden by federal and/or state law. There are many overlapping federal and state regulations on car safety, the way airbags are installed and repaired, and insurance and registration requirements.

If your car was manufactured with airbags, it’s probably illegal to drive without them due to one or more of the following regulations:

Federal Rules About Functional Airbags

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration requires all new cars manufactured after 1999 to have functional airbags installed by the factory and replaced by an authorized technician.

It’s against federal law for a dealership or mechanic to disable or remove any part of a car’s safety system, including the airbags and the airbag indicator light. And, while there’s no federal law against an individual disabling his or her own airbag, it’s incredibly dangerous.

In some instances, an airbag may be more harmful than protective for a driver of small stature or someone with special medical needs. To have an airbag on-off switch installed, you’ll need to get authorization from the NHTSA.

If you purchased a used car with no airbag or a fake one — or if your repair shop didn’t properly replace the airbags — you may be a victim of fraud. Contact your local office of the Consumer Protection Agency and your State Office of the Attorney General to see if you have a legal case.

Note: There is currently a massive recall underway for defective airbags sold to car manufacturers between 2002 and 2015. These airbags can explode without warning and cause injuries, crashes, and even death. You can look up your car’s VIN number on the NHTSA’s SaferCar website to see if your car is at risk. If it is, the dealership will fix it for free.

State Regulations about Functional Airbags

States have different laws regarding functional airbags. There are also state-specific laws on what makes a car street-legal. The following categories vary by state and affect whether or not it’s legal to drive your car without working airbags:

  • Airbag Fraud: Airbag replacement is expensive, so a lot of people look for low-cost alternatives. Unfortunately, that means there’s a market for salvaged, rebuilt, and/or counterfeit airbags — all of which can be dangerous. Selling or knowingly installing fake airbags is a crime in many states. When you sell your car, some states require you to tell the buyer about any issues with the airbags; withholding information may also be a crime.
  • Safety Inspections: Your vehicle must undergo a safety inspection in 16 states in order for you to renew your registration, buy or sell a car, or register a car from out of state. Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia specifically check for working airbags. Other states may fail your car if the airbag light indicates a problem. Remember, disabling the indicator light is against federal law.
  • Insurance and Title: The cost and terms of your insurance policy are based on your car’s features. If your car had working airbags when you purchased the policy, then damage to the airbags or seat-belt pre-tensioners is a major change to the safety equipment. Check the terms of your policy carefully as deployed or missing airbags may void your policy. And, it’s illegal in most states to drive an uninsured car. Additionally, if your car is declared a “total loss” by the insurance company, it may be assigned a “salvage title.” A salvage title voids your car title, which makes it illegal to drive.
  • Police Discretion: In some jurisdictions, cars with deployed airbags must be towed from an accident scene. In others, police will allow you to drive your car from the accident scene if it’s functional. Some states allow police to ticket drivers for operating a car “in an unsafe manner,” which gives them broad discretion to decide what is unsafe and, therefore, illegal.

State-by-State Summary of Airbag Laws

The following is an overview of each state’s current laws (as of update date of this article) that apply to driving a car without working airbags. Keep in mind, state legislatures revise, repeal, and pass new laws every year. If you have questions about your legal situation, you should contact a local attorney who can give you even more information.

In Summary

Is it illegal to drive a car without airbags? Driving without functional airbags isn’t explicitly banned in any state. But it is illegal to remove or tamper with airbags or to replace them with defective or non-functioning equipment. States also have various requirements for safety equipment, insurance, and registration. If your car doesn’t meet the standards — which often relate to airbags — it’s not street-legal to drive.

You may also be wondering if it’s illegal to drive without a bumper or without a hood.

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