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How to Disable Airbags

by Richard Rowe

Airbags are designed to save lives, but these well-intended devices can cause serious injury or death under certain conditions. Airbags make many mechanics nervous, since they can and do go off during vehicle maintenance and repair. Additionally, first-generation airbag systems from the 1970s and 1980s are notoriously overpowered and their inertial switches are just as prone to age-related malfunction as the rest of the car. This can be a serious problem for racers, who do not want or need a bomb in their lap on the race track. Of all the ways to permanently disable airbags, only one is guaranteed to prevent airbag deployment under any circumstances and works on every vehicle.

Locate your car's inertial airbag switches. There may be one or several. Almost all airbag systems use an inertial switch in airbag control module (ACM) itself, but a number of them use peripheral switches on the front and rear bumper or on the radiator core support. Common ACM locations include under the drivers' seat, under the dashboard, under the hood and in the center console.

Open all the doors to your car and cover as much of the interior as possible with the plastic tarp. Cover the roof, dashboard and door panels with plastic wrap and use duct tape to hold it in place. Cover everything that you don't want to vacuum baking soda or sand off of later.

Don all of you protective gear: earplugs, disposable wrap-around goggles, latex gloves and a plastic Tyvex suit. Hearing and eye protection are the most important; the suit and gloves are there most to ease clean-up.

Smack the inertial sensor with a hammer if it's outside the vehicle, or quickly jab it with the end of your pole if it's inside. Some vehicles that use multiple sensors require simultaneous input from two or more of them to trigger the airbags, so you may need to coordinate with an assistant to trigger them at the same time.

Wait for the airbags to fully deflate, then vacuum as much of the powder as possible off of the plastic and the tarp and out of the deployed airbags. Use your carpet knife to cut the airbag material itself away from the deployment unit. Vacuum the cavities out and replace the covers.

Remove the tarpaulin and plastic wrap, disposing of it in a garbage bag. Remove your Tyvex suit, earplug, gloves and goggles (in that order) and dispose of them in the garbage bag. Tie the bag shut and dispose of it. Wipe the interior of your car's plastic or leather surfaces with a wet rag. Replace the fuse in the ACM or flip the ACM-mounted breaker where required.

Tip

  • Other, less permanent ways of disabling the airbags include taking the car to a dealer to have an on-off switch installed (provided that you have a waiver from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration where applicable), disconnecting the battery and then the ACM and disconnecting the airbag harness from the airbags themselves. The last two can be a bit dangerous because you may inadvertently set the airbags off during removal. Additionally, some vehicles also use the ACM's inertial switch to shut the fuel pump off in the event of an accident; disconnecting the ACM in such vehicles will cut power to the fuel pump.

Warnings

  • This procedure is actually a bit safer than it sounds as long as you wear your safety equipment, remotely trigger the interior switch and keep your pipe out of the airbag-deployment path. The dust that comes out of the airbags won't hurt you, but you don't want it all over you or in your eyes, either.
  • The NHTSA says that you can't remove or disable the airbags on any registered, road-driven vehicle newer than 1996 without a waiver. Those waivers are nearly impossible to get unless you have a special disability or a late-model pick-up truck without a passenger-side on/off switch.
  • Simply pulling the airbag fuse may not disable the airbags. Many ACMs utilize an internal battery to ensure deployment even if the power is cut.

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About the Author

Richard Rowe has been writing professionally since 2007, specializing in automotive topics. He has worked as a tractor-trailer driver and mechanic, a rigger at a fire engine factory and as a race-car driver and builder. Rowe studied engineering, philosophy and American literature at Central Florida Community College.

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