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Is My Car Totaled If My Airbags Deploy?

Originally published March 21, 2022. Updated April 12, 2023.

Your vehicle’s airbags are designed to deploy in the event of a violent impact, such as in a car crash or collision. Airbags cushion the driver and passengers when the vehicle suddenly decelerates in a crash (such as after colliding with another vehicle or a road barrier), often preventing life-threatening injuries.

Considering the severity of crashes that typically set off the vehicle’s airbags, it is reasonable to assume the deployment of airbags constitutes proof the car is totaled. However, the answer depends on multiple factors. 

Here’s how to determine whether your vehicle can be repaired or will be written off after your airbags deploy.

When and How Do Airbags Deploy?

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) legally requires automakers to provide driver and front passenger airbags on all passenger vehicles and light trucks produced since September 1998.

Many automakers also offer extra airbag systems for additional protection, such as side airbags, rear passenger airbags, or knee airbags.

Airbags use an array of sensor systems to detect the speed and severity of a car crash. They are not designed to deploy on every impact because they could cause unintentional injuries if deployed at the wrong time or during minor collisions.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a standard front airbag deploys when its sensor detects an impact into a rigid obstacle at 10-12 mph for unbelted occupants or 16 mph for belted occupants. Side airbags deploy at 8-18 mph, depending on the impact severity. 

Typically, the narrower the struck obstacle, the lower the deployment threshold, as the impact forces are distributed over a smaller area, causing more severe damage.

What Designates a Car as Totaled?

Although the types of impacts that can deploy a car’s airbags tend to be serious, the airbags alone do not determine whether your vehicle will be written off. In reality, a car can only be declared as totaled after an accident if it exceeds the state’s “total loss threshold.”

In Wisconsin, the total loss threshold for a typical passenger vehicle is 70% of its fair market value. For example, suppose your car’s fair market value at the time of the accident was $8,500. If the total cost of repairs needed exceeds $5,950, it can therefore be declared totaled.

Repair costs include the parts and labor necessary to restore the car to a road-worthy and presentable condition, from bodywork repair to a new paint job. The best way to obtain a fair estimation of your car’s repair costs is to request a quote from a local, reputable body shop.

How Do Airbags Factor into My Car’s Damage Costs?

Although airbags are vital safety devices credited with saving over 50,000 lives between 1987 to 2017 (the latest year for which data is available), their primary limitation is their single-use nature. Once deployed, a car’s airbag systems cannot be reused and must be replaced.

Wisconsin law enforces this; it is illegal to sell, refurbish or reinstall a previously-deployed airbag per Wisconsin Statute 347.475.

If your car’s airbags have deployed following an accident, your body shop factors in the costs of replacing them into your total repair costs.

The total cost of an airbag replacement job varies depending on the repair shop, the car manufacturer, and the airbag manufacturer. On average, replacing a single airbag module costs $650-$750. Expect the costs to increase if several airbags have deployed during the accident.

Can I Drive Without Airbags?

Although the ISTEA has made it a legal requirement for automakers to install airbags on all new cars and light trucks since 1998, no state or federal laws prohibit driving without airbags installed. You can legally drive a car even if its airbags have already been deployed and were not replaced.

However, driving without airbags is inadvisable for many reasons. According to the most available recent data from 2017, airbags saved an an estimated 2,790 lives, and were shown to reduce fatalities by 11-14% depending on seatbelt use and vehicle type. Consequently, driving without airbags significantly increases the chances of a serious or deadly injury after a crash.

Hire a Professional Car Accident Lawyer 

If you or a loved one were involved in a car accident, call one of our Green Bay car crash attorneys as soon as possible. At Brian Hodgkiss Injury Lawyers, we can help you navigate insurance legislation, seek fair compensation from the at-fault driver, and give you the peace of mind you need after a crash that wasn’t your fault.
Contact us today for a free, no-obligation consultation.

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