Is It Illegal to Drive Without Airbags? Answers by State

Short Answer: A car with deployed airbags is still drivable, but 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. Below, we have more details on whether it is illegal to drive without airbags in each state.

Can You Physically Drive Without Airbags?

Is a car drivable after airbags deploy? Yes. Airbag deployment has nothing to do with the actual functionality of the car. Physically, you can drive a car with airbags deployed. Should you drive your car after the airbags deploy? No — at least, not any farther than you need to to get it fixed.

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.

Insurance companies will often declare a car “totaled” if the airbags deploy. 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.”

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. However, front-seat airbags became required standard equipment on new cars in 1999.

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. Your state may require working airbags due to its safety inspection standards, insurance and title requirements, airbag fraud protections, or at the discretion of the police.

Safety Inspections

Whether or not your car can pass the inspection without working airbags will vary by state. Some states specifically check the airbags during required inspections; others will fail your car if its airbag indicator light is on. Some do not specifically require the inspector to check the airbags, but may issue a warning and suggest repair for cars with malfunctioning airbags.

Your vehicle must undergo a safety inspection in 18 states in order for you to renew your registration, buy or sell a car, or register a car from out of state. We detail the regulations by state below. Remember, disabling the indicator light is against federal law.

The following states require inspections and, more specifically, require a check of the airbags and airbag readiness lights:

  • Maine: Annual safety inspection
  • Massachusetts: Annual safety inspection
  • Rhode Island: Requires inspection every two years and when purchasing an out-of-state vehicle
  • Vermont: Annual inspection
  • Virginia: Annual inspection
  • West Virginia: Annual inspection and inspection upon titling

The following states require safety inspections, but do not specifically require airbag checks:

  • Alabama: Requires inspection if selling the vehicle or transferring ownership
  • Delaware: Requires safety inspection for select vehicles biennially
  • Connecticut: Requires inspection for specific vehicles, including commercial vehicles, trailers, taxis
  • Hawaii: Inspection every 12 months; vehicles over 10,000 lbs. require inspection every six months
  • Illinois: Requires inspection for vehicles over 8,000 lbs. or which carry 10 or more passengers
  • Louisiana: Inspection every one to two years for every registered vehicle, trailer, semitrailer, and pole trailer
  • Missouri: Inspection every two years for vehicles at least 10 years old or with more than 150,000 miles
  • New Hampshire: Annual inspection; semi-annual inspection required for trucks over 18,000 lbs. and school buses over 10,000 lbs.
  • New York: Annual inspection and inspection upon transfer of ownership
  • North Carolina: Annual safety inspection
  • Pennsylvania: Annual inspection for all passenger vehicles and light trucks; also requires inspection if registering a car from out-of-state
  • Texas: Annual inspection

The following states do not require safety inspections on a statewide level, though police and public safety officers may stop and inspect vehicles if they have cause to believe that the vehicle is unsafe:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

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.

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.

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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