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Auto Know: If you must remove airbag, leave it to a pro

Working with airbags, especially their removal from or installation into a vehicle, can be dangerous.

Published July 13, 2012
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Q: I’d like to change the steering wheel on my 2004 Ford Ranger to a custom one but I have been told I cannot remove the factory airbag. The Highway Traffic Act only seems to indicate that I cannot sell an airbag. Am I missing something? Can I remove the airbag?

A: Ontario Transportation Ministry spokesperson Bob Nichols replies:

Any vehicle that requires an annual or semi-annual safety inspection must comply with the requirements of the National Safety Code Standard 11, Part B. Section 8, subsection 16(f) prohibits the removal or disconnection of an airbag if it was installed on the vehicle when it was manufactured. In addition, the airbag must be functional, and if replaced, the replacement must be installed according to the specifications of the vehicle manufacturer. Finally, the airbag indicator light must function as prescribed by the vehicle manufacturer.

For vehicles not requiring annual or semi-annual safety inspections (i.e. non-commercial passenger cars and trucks) there is nothing in the Highway Traffic Act, or associated regulations, which prohibits the removal of an airbag from a vehicle. The inquirer should be aware of the following, however:

Airbags are designed by the manufacturer to work in conjunction with seatbelts to protect vehicle occupants in the event of a crash. In a frontal crash, the airbag provides a larger area than the seatbelt which reduces the severity of crash forces on the occupant, improving survivability and reducing injuries. The inquirer is therefore discouraged from removing or disabling any airbag.

Removal or disconnection of a single airbag will cause the telltale light on the dashboard to illuminate — the light that warns about an airbag fault. If other faults were to arise in the system, over time the driver would be unaware of the further loss of protection normally provided by these components, since the light cannot do more than warn of at least one fault. It would then be possible that occupants would be subjected to more severe or fatal injury in the event of a crash.

Working with airbags, especially their removal from or installation into a vehicle, can be hazardous. Great care must be taken to ensure that the airbag is not damaged while handling and that a stray static discharge or other source of electricity does not find its way onto the electrical terminals. An accidental deployment of an airbag during removal, installation or transporting could cause serious injury to the individual handling the device.

Eric Lai adds:

It is extremely dangerous to handle live airbags so hire a professional. This is not a do-it-yourself project for untrained amateurs. Even if the battery is disconnected, mishandling the airbag during removal/installation might still trigger it (i.e. stray electrical charge). Accidental airbag deployment could cause serious injury or death.

Your custom replacement steering wheel might be incompatible with the factory airbag, so further complications may arise.

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