Can You Add Airbags to an Old Car?

Can You Add Airbags to an Old Car?

Airbags are such a staple of vehicle safety that it is hard to imagine a car without one. But this inflatable equipment did not become standard since the late ’90s. Before then, it was pretty common to see cars with no airbags. But can you install an airbag into an older car to improve its safety level? 

You normally cannot install an airbag on an old car that was initially designed without one. This is because airbags and all of the related equipment are specifically engineered for each vehicle and are built from the ground up. 

Airbags are not simply a big cushion that inflates when you crash a car. The mechanisms behind working to deploy an airbag are quite complex. So, let’s take a closer look at airbags and how they work.  

Is It Safe to Drive a Car Without Airbags? 

Can You Add Airbags to an Old Car?

Most are accustomed to how an airbag works. Whenever a car crashes head-on, a bag inflates with air within a fraction of a second from the front compartment of the car. The purpose of the bags is to reduce the forward momentum of the occupant inside the car. This softens up the initial impact and prevents the passengers from flying out of the car. 

So, what happens when you do not have a properly functioning airbag system in your car? 

The biggest cause of injuries in a car crash happens when the driver and/or passenger gets flung from their seat at great speed. When this happens, they hit the window or other parts of the car with a lot of force. This usually results in severe head injuries that are often fatal.  

If you crash in a car without airbags and you do not have seatbelts on, you will surely be thrust forward with great momentum. This can lead to serious injuries to the head and damage to your face. You may even get launched out of the car through the windshield and fall face-first onto the street. 

Now, it is important to note that airbags are a secondary safety feature. The seatbelts are the primary equipment keeping you in place. The airbags work in tandem with the seatbelt to decrease the force of impact.  

But even with a seatbelt on, the force of the impact can still cause physical damage. And in the case of people forgetting to wear their seatbelts, this becomes a potentially fatal equation. 

And this shows in the reports on the success rate of airbags in automobiles. According to the NHTSA, more than fifty thousand lives have been potentially spared by the intervention of the airbags. 

The widespread implementation of airbags has seen a reduction in the fatalities caused by frontal car crashes. And in conjunction with properly worn seatbelts, the risk of death is diminished by 61 percent, the NHTSA study estimates. 

So, based on the statistics, you are much more vulnerable on the streets if you are driving a car with no functional airbags. This is why most modern cars integrate this safety measure as a mandatory rule. 

Now, airbags do have their limitations. They can only deploy once before they have to be reset. And they only work if the crash happens at a certain speed. But plenty of surveys have shown that having an airbag generally limits the damage sustained from car injuries. So, not having them would be a risk. 

Is It Illegal to Drive a Car Without Airbags? 

It is not illegal to drive a car without an airbag if the car had no such safety equipment built-in, to begin with. This is because the airbags did not become widespread until the nineties. So, there are many functional cars that you cannot fit an airbag inside. 

Now, certain laws govern the implementation of airbags in cars that are built after a certain period. For example, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 required by law that all cars and light trucks sold in the US must have airbags on both of the front seats. 

And airbags have become a standard part of the safety regulations that all automobile companies follow. So, you will be hard-pressed to find a modern car without this safety feature. 

Can Airbags be Installed in Older Cars? 

Can You Add Airbags to an Old Car?

While you will not find a modern car without airbags, there are plenty of older generations of cars that did not incorporate this equipment in their design. 

And sadly, you cannot install a new airbag system in such vehicles, unless you strip it down and build a new car from the ground up. 

For a functioning airbag system, you need to have sensors, an inflator unit, chemical chambers, etc. All of this has to be fitted with the design of the individual car. And after the airbag is installed, the manufacturer test crashes the car numerous times to see if the airbag deploys properly or not. 

So, even if you somehow manage to get all the gears into place, the airbag has very little chance of working properly. Additionally, tampering with the car’s safety mechanisms like this may actually be illegal in the area you live in. 

How to Make a Car Without Airbags Safe? 

While airbags do make your car safer, it is not the end of the world if your older car does not have one. You need to take some steps to ensure the safety of yourself and the passengers you will carry. 

Seatbelts are the primary mechanism that lessens your momentum during a crash. And they are absolutely required to be worn at all times for a safe excursion on a vehicle. So, the first thing you need to do is properly fasten your own and the passenger-side seatbelt. 

You also have to follow the speed limit. Plus, you should regularly check the breaks and inspect your tires. This sort of maintenance check can save you from a potential crash. 


Airbags are a staple of modern vehicle safety. But for older cars that did not have airbags built into them, you can still ensure your safety by driving responsibly. 

Gui Hadlich

Hey there! I'm Gui. To be honest, I'm not really that interested in cars. But what I'm really, really not interest in is spending lots of money fixing my car up. Thankfully, I have a father-in-law who's obsessed with cars and a brother getting a PhD in internal combustion engines, so I get to learn about fixing cars. And with Fixing Engines, I hope to help you save a lot of money and take good care of your cars.

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