What to do when the air bag light comes on

September 4, 2015 08:44 AM

It's normal for all the warning lights on your dashboard to light up when you turn over your engine. It's when one of them stays lit that you may need to visit your mechanic.

That's certainly the case when the warning signal in question is for your air bags. The alert on your dash can take several forms: an icon of a person in a seat belt facing a large circle, the words "air bag" or the initials "SRS" for supplemental restraint system. Whatever it looks like, it's your cue to visit your local auto repair shop.

The air bag light being on means these key safety features of your vehicle are not working. Why does that matter? According to an exhaustive 2012 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, air bags have reduced crash deaths by 11 percent for drivers wearing their seatbelts and 14 percent for unbelted drivers. Put another way, air bags have saved 42,856 lives in the U.S. since 1960.

Can I fix it myself? No.
Some warnings are relatively safe for drivers to clear on their own, like on newer model cars when the tire pressure light comes on. Many gas stations offer easy-to-use air hoses drivers can use themselves to get their wheels back to the right pressure. But for air bag problems, take your car to a mechanic as soon as you can to get the problem diagnosed and repaired.

"Air bags have saved 42,856 lives since 1960."

The problem can vary from a loose wire to a seat-belt switch malfunction, according to mechanics interviewed by the consumer information clearinghouse Angie's List. One common glitch is the clockspring, which links together the air bag in your car's steering wheel with the electrical system and horn. If that's your trouble, the fix can run between $250 and $350, according to an auto shop owner in Montana.

"We're talking an hour or two of labor and parts. It's not expensive, but it's very critical," Robert Foster told Angie's List.

Special considerations for children
Experienced drivers may remember that air bags once had a bad reputation when it came to protecting children. Indeed, back in the early 90s, badly-designed air bags sparked a 22 percent increase in deaths for children under 13 riding in the front seat at the moment of impact, according to the NHTSA. The good news is designs have improved and today's "advanced airbags" no longer pose such risk. However, it's crucial that switches that let drivers turn off air bags when children under 13 are in the front seat be in good working order. If you have a car or truck equipped with such a switch and your air bag light is on, there's no guarantee the toggle will be doing what you expect and need in the event of a collision. One survey cited by the NHTSA showed a whopping 48 percent of these switches were incorrectly left on for preteen passengers.

In any event, if your vehicle has a back seat, young children should be riding there (in a car seat for the very youngest).

The safest place for young children is in the back seat.The safest place for young children is in the back seat.

Massive air bag recall
Even if your light isn't on, it could be time to examine your air bag system. That's because the news has been filled recently with word of widespread recalls on air bags. The federal government maintains a nifty website where you can plug in your car's vehicle identification number and learn if it is the subject of any recalls. Current recalls include a massive one of air bags made by Takata. It affects at least 32 million vehicles made by 11 manufacturers. Faulty inflators can send shrapnel into your car's interior during a crash, according to Car & Driver.

So to sum up: If your air bag light won't turn off, you need to turn in to your local repair shop.

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